In Pakistan a Soft Coup Stalls

September 3, 2014

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When protesters converged on the Pakistani capital of Islamabad to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, many were quick to see the hand of the military pulling the strings behind the scenes. Sharif, who became prime minister in 2013 after Pakistan’s first full transition of power from one democratically elected government to another, irked the army during his first year in office. He put former military ruler Pervez Musharraf — who overthrew Sharif in a 1999 coup — on trial for treason. He tried to carve out an independent foreign policy — the traditional preserve of the army — including promising better relations with India. The protests, led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and cult religious leader Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri looked like a means of putting Sharif in his place.

Then, with Sharif refusing to resign and the protesters turning increasingly violent over the weekend, the showdown appeared to be following a familiar course. If Pakistan became ungovernable, the Pakistan army would be “forced” to intervene and take over to restore order. It had happened before. In 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq seized power ostensibly to end a political crisis. Throughout the 1990s, elected governments were repeatedly changed as political parties moved through a revolving door pushed by squabbling politicians and spun from on high by the army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

This time around, however, events are not following the script. In what could become a watershed for Pakistan’s fragile democracy, civilian politicians are fighting back. Political parties, with the exception of Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), rallied behind the government. PTI’s own president, Javed Hashmi, broke with his leader to accuse him of acting on the behest of the army in the hope of forcing fresh elections. A statement released by the army — which appeared to draw equivalence between the mob besieging Islamabad and the elected government — was quickly called out by the English-language media. The army statement advised the government against the use of force and said that if the situation were not resolved quickly, it would play its part “in ensuring security of the state” — an apparent warning that it could take over. In response, a remarkably forthright editorial in Dawn pointed out that “it is the government that is supposed to give orders to the army, not the other way around.” The Nation also declared the army to be out of line and pointed out that the military would not hesitate to use force if violent protesters besieged its own headquarters. On Tuesday, the government called a joint session of both houses of parliament to reaffirm support for democracy.

So what happened to the script? Has Pakistan’s democracy matured to the point where civilian governments can no longer be so easily dismissed? The answer may not be entirely clear for a few days or weeks yet, and will depend on Sharif’s own ability to show flexibility in accommodating opponents inside and outside of parliament.

Or did this coup, by other means, stumble not just because of the resistance of the democrats, but also because the military itself was hesitant about delivering the fatal blow? Are some parts of the security establishment eagerly cheering on Khan and Qadri while others ready themselves to settle for a weakened prime minister still in place? After all, retaining the trappings of democracy would avoid the international disapproval and U.S. sanctions that might follow an outright coup. (Officially, the army denied backing the protesters in a statement that insisted it was an apolitical institution.)

Pakistan’s security establishment — a term that covers everyone from army chief General Raheel Sharif, to his fellow Corps commanders, to the ISI, to retired officers who may or may not be acting under official orders — is notoriously opaque. All that can be said, then, is that Khan has been useful to the security establishment in the past, but either has a tendency to go his own way, or draws his support from particularly hard-line elements.

A few years ago, for example, Khan became one of the most vocal campaigners against drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and against the U.S.-led campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. His campaigns were particularly useful to an army that liked to tell the United States that domestic opinion — albeit domestic opinion it had helped manufacture — prevented it from doing more against Islamist militants. Yet more recently, his insistence on holding peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban annoyed some in the army who believed they should be fought more aggressively. Khan’s commitment to defending the people of FATA was conveniently forgotten as soon as the Pakistan army launched its own military operation this year in North Waziristan, which produced one million internal refugees.

In the run-up to the elections, Pakistani media suggested that Khan was a particular favourite of Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, then head of the ISI. The former cricketer, not well known for his critical thinking, happily espoused the army narrative that all of Pakistan’s problems could be blamed on its corrupt politicians, while disregarding the military’s own powerful role in setting policy. Yet moving Khan from a single issue player as an anti-drones campaigner to the national political stage proved extremely hard even for a powerful intelligence establishment with many friends in the media. Khan picked up genuine support from those tired of existing political parties, particularly from a younger, urban generation. His unseen friends in the security establishment made sure he was given ample coverage in the Pakistani media, while the international media duly promoted a man with a glamorous international playboy past and pukka English.

But he could not win. Rightly or wrongly, Pakistan has a U.K.-style, first-past-the-post system in which the mastery of constituency politics matters more than overall voting percentage. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has taken years to build and foster its constituency. In the 2013 elections, it came out nearly 100 seats ahead with an absolute majority in parliament. During this year’s protests, Khan tried to accuse Sharif of having won only through massive rigging. In reality, he was so far ahead that even if PML-N victories had been overturned in some constituencies, Sharif would still have won — a view borne out by subsequent opinion polls giving him a strong showing, particularly in the heartland Punjab province.

Khan’s failure to bring out enough supporters in the elections was repeated in this year’s protests. Even after he joined forces with Qadri in the hope of bringing out the masses in a “revolution” against the elected government, neither man could muster the numbers they needed. In a country with a population of more than 180 million, the number of protesters laying siege to Islamabad rarely went past a few thousand. Neither Khan nor Qadri could ever really have hoped to be taken seriously as leaders of a true revolutionary movement on behalf of ordinary people without challenging the role of the military establishment, which consumes more than a quarter of the annual budget.

Yet despite his lack of numbers, Khan continued to insist on the resignation of the prime minister rather than trying to extract concessions and withdraw to fight another day. Perhaps he was given a false idea from some within the security establishment that the army would move in his favor, force Sharif to resign, and call fresh elections that he expected PTI to win. Certainly, his former political ally, Javed Hashmi, gave that impression when he told the Pakistani media that Khan himself cited army support and promised elections in September. Or perhaps his failure to rally enough discontent gave the army cold feet.

Either way, barring any new surprises, the coup by other means appears to have run its course. It was a tawdry affair. An elected government and prime minister were chastened by a mob — a mob, moreover, that was very possibly encouraged by the military. The concessions Sharif made to the army in the course of the showdown will become clearer in the coming weeks, particularly if Musharraf is allowed to leave the country. Khan’s intransigence and willingness to put his personal ambition above support for democracy badly tarnished his reputation. The army came away looking less than sure-footed and perhaps fragmented. Yet remarkably, the fragile democratic transition survived. It is now up to Sharif — who has a reputation for autocracy and a tendency to rely on family members — to make the parliamentary system work and ensure his government is properly accountable to the electorate by delivering good governance.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Photo credit: Mustafa Mohsin

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16 thoughts on “In Pakistan a Soft Coup Stalls

  1. Brilliant article.. You sum up the whole thing currently happening in one Article….Let me bring into ur notice thst there are some media houses as well who are part of this soft coup attempt.and they should be banned in Pakistan..or at least their will be some policy defined for all the Media houses through Parliament or Supreme court..

    1. As long as the military keeps meddling in politics, the country will never be able to progress. They continue to act as opportunistic destabilizers who would thwart reforms vital for Pakistan’s development. So what if Sharif pursues peace with India – peace has to be pursued by both sides in order to achieve fruits for both. Army should not be dictating policy to anyone, especially when the generals themselves don’t have the guts to come out and fight in the electoral arena themselves.

      The only beneficiary of this crisis which has weakened the govt, will be General Musharraf (aka. “Busharraf”). He is Stooge #1, and neither he nor his cronies in the Army and ISI wish to see him be held accountable for his past misdeeds, which have undermined Pakistan’s national interests. Instead, the weakened elected govt will be forced to allow Musharraf to leave the country – which is precisely what the Army and ISI intended all along by launching this latest game.

  2. Myra your analysis is realistic. I wanna add one thing. Imran khan’s procession secretly (but allegedly) sponsored by ISI was not due to “hubb-e-ali but was mostly due to “bughz-e-maavya”. And I don’t consider Qadri as shrude politician. He is parodoxically insane. The guy is a chauvinistic nuts. You can use him any way you like if well paid.

  3. Writer of this article needs to provide facts to build her case.

    1. “PTI’s own president, Javed Hashmi, broke with his leader to accuse him of acting on the behest of the army in the hope of forcing fresh elections.”

    Linking to a Tribune article which does not mention anywhere that Hashmi accused Khan of “acting on the behest of the army” is pretty unwise, Ms. McDonald. Can you please show us where it says that?

    2. “Khan has been useful to the security establishment in the past”. How so? Can we see some facts?

    3. “His unseen friends in the security establishment made sure he was given ample coverage in the Pakistani media”.

    Once again, where are you getting this information?

    4. “Perhaps he was given a false idea from some within the security establishment that the army would move in his favor ..”

    Speculating again. Can you give us some facts please?

    1. Ahsan S, you sound like one of those typical apologists for military coups who comes crawling out of the woodwork whenever such coups happen – and they’ve happened repeatedly in Pakistan’s shameful history, again and again, to the delight of crooked people like you.

      Javed Hashmi clearly stated that Imran Khan had told him that everything was being done according to the Army’s pre-planned agenda. Hashmi said that Imran told him a new judge would be brought in to hear their case against Sharif, and that fresh elections would be held in September. Hashmi also said that none of the PTI parliamentarians had voluntarily given their resignations, and that these were obtained against their will.

      Hashmi is widely respected by the Pakistani public, and his revelations are a damning indictment of the ambitions of Imran Khan, as well as the dangerous machinations of the praetorian military. Like Caesar’s wife, the military should keep themselves above suspicion. Instead, we see the military issuing stern warnings to the elected govt to refrain from violence, even while the military keeps glaringly silent on the blatant violence by the protesters. Those protesters would have never dared sack the PTV headquarters without the backing of the Army and ISI.

  4. Pretty darn right! I, an ordinary guy watching bits of news from all over the world, on third day of IK sit-in, had the opinion as u said in your art: that “he should extract anyany concessions as possible & leave the fight for another day”. Joining the nutcase TuQ, civil dis, moving on to PM Hse (PTV run: I’m not sure if it’s PTI’s), all didn’t fit well with what has been the grand agenda of IK for ‘change’ unless ‘someone’ making one to do otherwise.

  5. A few thousand protesters came?

    Maybe that’s because the government didn’t let them because they blocked most of the city with containers and arrested around 30 thousand supporters.

    1. In a nation of over 100 million, all they could muster were a few thousand protesters? We all know that Qadri, who lives comfortably abroad and only rushes back when his ISI masters call him, has thousands of people in his religious schools who are dependent upon him for support. Bringing followers from some narrow Sufi sect isn’t the same as bringing all of Pakistan into the streets. Most Pakistanis stayed away from these protests because everyone recognizes this tired old game which has been played many times before, to Pakistan’s historical shame.

  6. Editors must in most cases follow policy.
    ‘Umpire’ could mean so many things.
    Police is not corrupt, they just do not find required time to do real police work.
    Thank you ‘demo(n)cracy’
    Army is to BLAME , naturally ..
    Assumptions, Fear and Speculation rule the day.
    Long Live Pakistan.

  7. Excellent analysis, puts the tumultuous events over the last few weeks in good context. The survival of civilian institutions against this onslaught is a critically positive development for the country.

    In Poli Sci circles we say ‘Every country has an Army, in Pakistan, the Army has a country’. My opinion is that the new CoAS is being undermined by more hawkish and old school deep state generals. He is still trying to establish his footing with the ISI having never worked in it. He may have to prove his loyalty to the institution while balancing his Punjabi inclinations to support a PM who has strong support in the province.

    The Pakistani Army has never won a war, their primary focus on domestic politics. Major factor being the fragmented and weakening structure of the military itself. In most countries the CoAS reports to the Chairman of the Joint of Staff, in Pakistan its the other way around. The AirForce and Navy feel sidelined in the command structure and feel subservient to the Army, lacking true 1st world independence. I think they prefer civilian control to some extent.

    Either way, the only way for the country to improve is established democracy with a truly representative and responsible government that is held accountable by the electorate. This is a major win for Pakistan.

  8. Khan is protesting for long term benefit of the nation. I have differences with him but I support his effort for free and fair elections in Pakistan. Ballot papers were printed and then stamped by PML-N candidates. Unless we have free and fair elections we will not know which party has strongest political support.

    Things need to be investigated and doesnot matter how many people show up to say the right thing.

  9. Anyone who sees Pakistan with the tinted “Indian” glasses will write the kind of article written here. Just like the current government leaders and folks in the opposition, who are disconnected with the Pakistani masses, so is this scribe.