Features | Politics | South Asia

The Judge, the General, and Pakistan’s Evolving Balance of Power

In various ways, in both public and private, Pakistan’s elites are delineating the distribution of power.

By Arif Rafiq for

The tenuous nature of Pakistan’s democratic transition was put on display this Monday when the country’s army chief and Supreme Court chief justice appeared to warn one another to not transgress their constitutionally-defined roles.

Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani decried what he claimed were attempts to create divisions between the Pakistani military and its people. And he said that no individual or institution has a monopoly on deciding what is in Pakistan’s national interest. Later that day, the Supreme Court released the text of a speech given by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in which he declared that the days of a military-dominated conception of national security are over.

An overt clash between the army and the Supreme Court is unlikely. Kayani is extremely cautious and has behaved with more restraint than his predecessors, who were far more intrusive in the political process. And though Chaudhry heads the most activist court in Pakistan’s history, he has been markedly less confrontational with the military since coming back into office in 2009, as compared to years before.

What we are witnessing is an indelicate — and, at times, unwieldy — process in which Pakistan’s elites are delineating the distribution of power and the rules of the game. This process is taking fold in multiple fora, both public and private, formal and informal, in parliamentary committees and via the television airwaves.

Kayani is seeking to establish red lines for the activist Supreme Court, which flexed its muscles this year when it disqualified a sitting prime minister from office. In multiple addresses this year, Kayani has warned of a clash of institutions, alluding to the conflict between the executive and the judiciary. Now, the army chief is concerned about whether the high court is setting its sights on the military. The Supreme Court ordered an investigation into whether former Chief of Army Staff. Gen. Aslam Beg and former Inter-Services Intelligence Director-General Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani manipulated elections in the early 1990s.

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Kayani fears that the prosecution of retired senior army officers could dent the institution’s morale as it fights multiple insurgencies and seeks to rehabilitate its image in the year since the bin Laden raid. During Kayani’s five years in office, the army chief has assiduously worked to restore public confidence in the army which had eroded after years of military rule and an unpopular alliance with the United States.

Kayani also seeks to preserve the army’s institutional autonomy and self-accorded privileges, including its vast economic holdings. The army opposes being held accountable by civilian forces. In September, the military announced that it would take over investigations of retired army officers in a million dollar corruption scandal that were being conducted by the civilian National Accountability Bureau.

The army has historically seen itself as the guardian of Pakistan’s stability and as a cleansing force in politics. The Supreme Court has in many ways usurped that role, for example, by holding politicians accountable for corruption and pressing the military to present secretly detained prisoners. Despite Kayani having given almost unprecedented space for the political process to operate, he is still the product of a military ingrained with a caste-like group identity and sense of responsibility and privileges. Its corporate culture will need to evolve with the power shift in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s balance of power has been significantly altered in the past five years. During the 1990s, Pakistan was dominated by its two largest political parties — the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan Peoples Party — and the military-intelligence establishment, which generally had a pliant president in place. In 2007, two new forces entered onto the scene: an activist Supreme Court and a vigilant private media, including scores of television news channels. Together with civil society activists, they paved the way for the restoration of Chaudhry to the Supreme Court (he was deposed by military ruler President Pervez Musharraf twice in 2007), and for the eventual downfall of the once invincible Musharraf.

Following the 2008 elections, Pakistan’s parliament has been more proactive than ever. Bipartisan parliamentary committees have worked to produce three landmark constitutional amendments that have advanced political reform. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security produced a consensus-based roadmap on how to restore ties with the United States in the wake of last year’s deadly U.S. attack on a Pakistani military base. And with a hung parliament, smaller political parties have a disproportionate say in the political process given that they are essential coalition partners. The military no longer has its own man in the presidency.

Despite the apparent acrimony between Pakistan’s various power brokers, all seem to be cognizant of the changes that have taken place. In their addresses on Monday, both Kayani and Chaudhry called for a redefinition of the concept of national security and said that no single institution can dominate this process. This overlap was noted by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who has had a tense relationship with the military over the past twenty years and has allied himself with Chaudhry in recent years. The prime minister-led Defense Cabinet Committee, which acts like a national security council, and a number of parliamentary foreign policy, defense, and national security committees have played a more visible role in discussing and shaping national security policy.

Pakistan is possibly experiencing the end of military hegemony and the beginning of an era of consensus. But for these changes to crystilize, the country’s power brokers must purge themselves of hegemonic tendencies and a pathology of saviorhood. The army will have to concede that military officers can be as corrupt as civilian politicians. It will have to prepare itself for a time in which parliament will review its budget in detail. The Supreme Court will eventually have to temper its use of suo moto power and, for example refrain from determining the prices of compressed natural gas and sugar. And civilian politicians will have to recognize that corruption is bleeding an almost bankrupt Pakistan and empower an independent and competent accountability force.

In 2013, Pakistan’s power shift will be on even more tenuous ground as it could have a new prime minister, president, army chief, and Supreme Court chief justice. All of their tenures will come to an end next year. And a potentially new cast of characters will have to earn the trust of one another and evolve formal and informal mechanisms of collaboration. Working through consensus and making compromises are key. Pakistan’s power brokers acknowledge this, but next year, it will become more clear whether they really mean it.

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Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.