Is Pakistan undergoing a reset in army-civilian ties?

As the army realises the folly of its political interventions, Pakistan hopes for a tentative military-civilian equilibrium to strengthen democracy.

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf at a protest against the alleged skewing in Pakistan’s national election, in Peshawar on March 10. The party alleges that widespread rigging took place in the election held on February 8.

Supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf at a protest against the alleged skewing in Pakistan’s national election, in Peshawar on March 10. The party alleges that widespread rigging took place in the election held on February 8. | Photo Credit: ABDUL MAJEED/AFP

At first sight, Pakistan’s military might appear to have merely spun the turnstile to bring forward one set of civilian cut-outs to replace another. Earlier models of the civilian facade, the Bhutto-Zardaris and the Sharifs, have returned to centre stage while Imran Khan, the last discard, has been whisked away. However, the scenario is more complex as there are real dynamics in play, not mere theatrics.

A few months after Khan was ousted from the premiership through a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly on April 10, 2022, the military arranged an unprecedented media event. Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence, and Major General Babar Iftikhar, Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations, addressed a press conference to clarify the military’s position on many national issues.

Their main purpose was to refute Khan’s allegation that the army and its then chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, were the orchestrators of his ouster. Threaded through the presentation, however, was another theme that held a more long-term and system-related portent.

New template

Without putting it in absolutely blunt terms, they seemed to acknowledge that their institution had erred by repeatedly intervening in political processes. In far clearer terms, they promised the nation that such actions would not be repeated ever again in the future. Gen. Bajwa’s newly minted catchphrase, “democracy is the way forward”, was presented as the template of the new policy.

Also Read | Can Pakistan’s fragmented mandate pave the way for a national charter of democracy?

To go by the processes leading up to the February 2024 general election and the result, there seems to be little reason to believe that the promise was kept. Before going into the reasons for the breach of promise, it would be useful to enumerate the ways in which it was flouted.

Khan and several other leading lights of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), were arraigned in a plethora of cases on charges ranging from treason to theft. When the party protested against these actions, sometimes violently, legal measures were ratcheted up, and hundreds of activists were incarcerated and senior leaders pressured to give up their memberships and denounce the leader. Finally, the party was denied the use of its election symbol, the cricket bat, and its nominees had to contest the election as independents.

Almost all these actions were taken under the aegis of the Shehbaz Sharif Cabinet at the Centre, which took office after the 2022 no-confidence vote, and associated governments in the provinces.

The Election Commission of Pakistan went along with the anti-PTI action for the most part, and the judiciary was not always non-partisan. Caretaker governments, which held power from the date on which elections were announced to the date when the process was completed, provided little relief to the PTI. Khan and his party vehemently criticised all these institutions and agencies, but the real focus of their anger was the military.

Neutral observers found no anomaly in all this since it was an open secret that the PTI had broken a taboo by tarnishing the armed forces in the first place. In any case, the PTI would never have come to power without the army’s support; also, its government, formed in 2018, worked with the army all along to harass political opponents.

Election results

Given this backdrop and the history of democracy in Pakistan, it was near certain that the electoral outcome would, at the very least, be tweaked. There were reports of returning officers declaring PTI-backed candidates as winners by the evening of counting day only to reverse their decision the next morning. Other kinds of shenanigans were also reported.

A major problem with these reports is that they appear to have been filed by people who are not well informed about procedures (the generic problem with social media), and they could not accurately nail the misdeeds.

In the event, independent candidates backed by the PTI, and so well known for their proximity to the party that they were practically party nominees, emerged as the biggest bloc in parliament.

Former President Arif Alvi (right) administers the oath to Shehbaz Sharif in Islamabad on March 4. Sharif was voted in on March 3 as the Prime Minister for the second time and presides over a shaky alliance.

Former President Arif Alvi (right) administers the oath to Shehbaz Sharif in Islamabad on March 4. Sharif was voted in on March 3 as the Prime Minister for the second time and presides over a shaky alliance. | Photo Credit: AFP

However, this bloc, with 93 directly elected members, was well short of the halfway mark. Pakistan’s National Assembly, with a full strength of 336, has 266 directly elected members; the remaining 70 seats are reserved for women (60) and religious minorities (10). These reserved seats are allotted to different parties in proportion to the number of directly elected seats they have won.

In theory, the PTI’s “independents” could have claimed a majority of the directly elected members (134) if the party had clinched an alliance with either the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N), which bagged 75 directly elected seats, or the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which had 54.

  • Independent candidates backed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party emerged as the biggest bloc in parliament.
  • Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Pakistan Peoples Party will not be able to function with complete freedom because they are short of a majority on their own.
  • The military realised it was not equipped to handle the political economy and that it could not walk away from the repercussions of its mistakes.

Political formations

Given Khan’s hostility to the two traditionally prominent political formations, which they reciprocate just as fervently, these options were foreclosed. An almost natural outcome was that the PML(N) was able to form a coalition government with the support of the Muttahida Quami Movement and some minor parties. With the allocation of the reserved seats to the parties, their final strength in the National Assembly is as follows: the PML(N)-led coalition: 157, the PPP: 73, and the nominally PTI-led opposition bloc (the Sunni Ittehad Council): 105.

The PPP backed the PML(N) coalition during the vote of confidence. In return, the PML(N) supported the PPP’s bid to make its co-chairperson, Asif Ali Zardari, the President of Pakistan. By March 11, the new administration was complete, with Shehbaz Sharif taking office as Prime Minister and Zardari ensconced in the Aiwan-e-Sadr (the official residence of the President).

At the provincial level, the PML(N) formed the government in Punjab with Maryam Nawaz, daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as Chief Minister. The PPP formed the government in Sindh and Balochistan and the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Was this electoral outcome engineered by the powers that be? Even the most impartial of observers think that it probably was. That is not something novel in Pakistan politics, and the outcome is tailor-made for the establishment in some ways. The PTI has been shown its place, but the PML(N) and the PPP will not be able to function with complete freedom because they are short of a majority on their own.

Three provinces are under what the establishment would consider relatively “responsible” parties, while the PTI too might be wary of destabilising the system given its control over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Overall, the military can also point out that the PTI would have got far fewer seats if rigging had indeed been as widespread as it alleges.

Coming back to the reasons for breaking the promise of abstinence from politics, it could be a case of discovering the risks of jumping off the tiger’s back. In the course of the protests against Khan’s ouster, the one stark and startling revelation was the degree of animosity towards the military. Many of the protesters might have actually believed that Khan was a good leader who had been served a raw deal. But many more seemed to be driven to fury by an institution that had always controlled the nation’s destiny, made a mess of the job, and was compounding its mistakes.

Even as the military was realising that it was not equipped to handle the political economy, it might have also been discovering the impossibility of just walking away from the repercussions of its mistakes. Through years of over-reach, it had created so many imbalances that a democratic alternative would be hard put to repair the damage on its own.

Over the year and some months during which it was in power, the Shehbaz Sharif government seemed fully conscious that it had to remake an economy gutted by the previous regime. External assistance was essential but would not be forthcoming unless harsh measures were taken. Every unavoidable decision was met with protest by a PTI unmindful of the compulsions the country was under. The conditions were perfect for the rise of a demagogue who would follow the dictates of his ego without caring about consequences.

It would not be inaccurate to say that the PTI had forced the military’s hand to a great degree. It had acted as if it had no sense of the country’s reality or its responsibilities as an aspirant for power. There was no altruism at work on the military’s part, either.

Also Read | Pakistan: Chaos and the way out

The whole system, which underpins the military too, was in danger of collapse. In the circumstances, the best option was to install an alternative that might do a better job and cooperate with it.

In the PML(N)-PPP combine, the military has an interlocutor with the experience of navigating Pakistan’s power dynamics. If this latest experiment in dealing with democratic forces works, the military-civilian relationship might attain some equilibrium. Once some form of stability is restored, all options could once again be reconsidered.

Kesava Menon is a commentator and analyst. He is the author of Never Tell Them We Are The Same People: Notes on Pakistan.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment