The Pulse

Why Do Coups Happen in Pakistan?

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The Pulse

Why Do Coups Happen in Pakistan?

The three factors behind Pakistan’s past (and perhaps future) coups.

Why Do Coups Happen in Pakistan?
Credit: U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison

Warning that a “coup is knocking” has been favorite mantra for Pakistani politicians over the years, to their occasional benefit. Creating panic in the name of a coup is the best remedy to stay in power even when a politician’s reign is encumbered with feeble governance, corruption, and mismanagement. But portraying themselves as oppressed and stranded because of the permanent threat of coups has been of little use for Pakistan’s political parties historically. In fact, the ever-present sense of a possible coup in Pakistan is not only because the coup makers are ever ready, but even more because the politicians themselves provided room for military adventurism. Three reasons have long been paving the way for military rule in Pakistan.

Political Strife

Immediately after its independence in 1947, Pakistan had to cope with countless hiccups; political settlements were no exception. Worse, founding father Quaid-E-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah died only a year after the country was established, which sparked an endless power sharing tussle among the politicians. Jinnah’s successors did not demonstrate the maturity required for the success of the democratic process. The newly born state was unable to make a constitution for nine years and in these years Pakistan went through four prime minsters, four governor generals, and one president. With no constitution and no political stability, the country was being governed on an ad hoc basis. Decision-making was in limbo, the government machinery was static, and activists of the freedom movement were disappointed with the shaky progress of political affairs.

The masses were waiting for a messiah that could put the country on the right track. Seeing this state of affairs, General Ayub Khan stepped in after being appointed as chief of army staff (COAS) by President Iskander Mirza, and Pakistan’s first-ever coup occurred on October 7, 1958. That date marked the time when the country took a sharp tilt towards military adventurism and history witnessed the military involvement in state affairs well before democracy had taken hold. Consequently, the state endured more coups in 1969, 1977, and 1999.

Only seven years after the first general elections, then-COAS Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the Zulifkar Ali Bhutto regime in 1977 and imposed Pakistan’s longest period of martial law. Bhutto was unquestionably famous among the masses but his ouster was not resisted (except by Bhutto’s own Pakistan People’s Party). Instead, a coalition of opposition parties (the Pakistan National Alliance) eased way for a military takeover just before the 1977 elections, since the political violence and agitation had touched new heights.

The year 1988 marked an end to what most call the vicious military rule in Pakistan when Army Chief-turned-President Zia-ul Haq-died in a plane crash. After his death, the PPP came back to power and appointed Zulifkar Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, as the prime minister. However, the enthusiastic return to democracy didn’t prove productive, as the opposition parties continued orchestrating covert intrigues to topple elected governments.

From 1988 to 1999, four governments came and went, with none of them seeing through a constitutional term. This political tug of war was a nuisance for the state as a whole and the public suffered the brunt of the calamity. Again when Nawaz Sharif swept the 1997 polls and was elected democratically, he was ousted by Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Despite being overthrown in an undemocratic fashion, there was no resistance to Musharraf’s coup. The disillusioned people did not bother to come into the streets either in favor of democracy or simply against military takeover.

Missing Political Consensus on the Economic Front

Additionally, political instability and backstage tussles have impeded Pakistan’s economic activities. Pakistan has a bleak history of commencing mega projects. This problem is also associated directly with political parties, which rarely consensus before initiating big projects. Combined with Pakistan’s constant political turnover, mega projects have almost no chance.

For example, the proposed Kalabagh Dam was and still is a necessity for Pakistan, since it will heavily contribute to ending the country’s energy woes, but the dam has always remained controversial. Parties from Sindh grabbed votes by making it a contentious issue, earning public sympathies through propaganda.

Recently, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has been overjoyed to commence the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) but this mega project is also witnessing political hindrances. Parties from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Balochistan are not happy with the planned route and claim they will receive little benefits from the project, which they call it detrimental for the federation.

Mega projects that have been accomplished — like Mangla and Tarbela Dams and Gwadar Port –were initiated and completed during military regimes. Agricultural reforms were introduced during the Ayub Khan era while effective police order was a specific forcus of Pervez Musharraf.

Lack of Accountability

Transparency and accountability are two fundamental columns of good governance, yet in Pakistan both are practiced halfheartedly or used to tyrannize political opponents. Historically, accountability has been marred by the ruling elite’s preferences and ineffective institutions. Additionally, the politicization of the bureaucracy and cronyism have enormously affected the professionalism of civilian institutions and therefore civil servants serve political interests instead of the state.

The deterioration of the civil services is also a reason behind military involvement in Pakistani politics, since people believe that the armed forces are professional and act based on state priorities. Likewise, public opinion tends to place military men ahead of politicians when it comes to advocating for accountability, since the masses believe military pursues accountability without political interests.

In a democracy, these imperfections and deficiencies debilitate the social, political, and economic milieus and decelerate development. But it doesn’t mean that military adventurism is the only solution. Coups have served public expectations to a considerable extent but didn’t enable democratic norms to mature. Meanwhile, coups cause a lack of military professionalism, trample on human rights, and encourage a one man show at the top stage of politics.

However, a coup cannot happen unless space is provided. Pakistani political parties and politicians have mostly adopted an opportunistic approach; their strategy has indeed debilitated democratic standards and strengthened the grounds for military invasions. Even after 70 years, hope for deliverance from these issues is missing from the manifestos of political parties — therefore the coups will keep knocking.

Muhammad Daim Fazil is Lecturer of International Relations at University of Gujrat, Sialkot Campus, Pakistan. He was July 2016 Visiting Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center Washington DC, USA. He tweets @DaimFazil.