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In Pakistan, Hybrid Rule Is Further Institutionalized Through Dynastic Political Parties

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The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

In Pakistan, Hybrid Rule Is Further Institutionalized Through Dynastic Political Parties

Amid the power struggle between the PML-N, PPP, and PTI, the only winner has been the military establishment. 

In Pakistan, Hybrid Rule Is Further Institutionalized Through Dynastic Political Parties
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has left self-imposed exile and returned to Pakistan to launch his twilight vision for the country. However, the Pakistan he has returned to features a political landscape that has been scorched by the power struggle between the dynastic political parties – composed of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Amid this power struggle, so far, the only winner has been the military establishment. 

Following Khan’s removal from power through a no-confidence motion, a coalition of the PML-N, the PPP, and other parties, ascended to power. Under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, a slew of legislative measures were passed through parliament that empowered the military’s right to impose “law and order” and fundamentally legitimized the military’s role in the country’s economic sphere

Khan was able to wage a year-long battle against the military because he retained broad populist support – support that the subsequent alliance government lacked. Only when the military establishment’s legitimacy and cohesiveness were threatened did new Chief of Army Staff Asim Munir clamp down on Khan. 

The military establishment’s actions were met with applause by the established dynastic political parties. Khan’s exploitation of the military-civilian hybrid model and the subsequent existential threat he posed to the old political establishment compelled his rivals to collaborate with the military to ensure their survival. Yet, the price the old establishment was willing to pay for its survival was the very notion of democracy that these parties claimed to defend. 

Although the Sharif brothers are reunited once more, the prospect of their return to power amid the lingering but overwhelming popularity of the now-imprisoned Khan fundamentally throws into question the integrity of the upcoming elections (the date is still yet to be determined). Khan routinely voiced his opposition to Shehbaz Sharif’s appointment of Munir as the next chief of army staff. The PTI leader claimed that Munir’s appointment was a quid pro quo to pave the way for his brother’s return to power as prime minister. 

While the Sharif brothers deny any such deal, the optics and long-time tradition of the military establishment suggest otherwise. By pursuing this route, the PML-N, the Sharifs’ dynastic political party, has only reinforced civilian dependency on the military and further institutionalized hybrid rule. Rather than liberating civilian leadership from the military establishment, they have further entrenched a system where the civilian leadership is beholden to the generals in Rawalpindi. 

When it comes to enabling and empowering the military, three main legislative measures were proposed or passed shortly before the appointment of the caretaker government, which will govern until national elections are scheduled. If examined closely, these legislative measures seem specifically designed to monitor and prevent mass public mobilization through social media, empower intelligence agencies, and solidify and protect the military’s role as an economic actor. In simpler terms, the military establishment has been strengthened and the military-civilian hybrid model has been reinforced. 

Military Dominance Institutionalized 

Following Cabinet approval, the E-Safety Bill and Personal Data Protection Bill have been marketed as a government measure to protect citizens’ data. Yet, they also lay the foundation for a potential state-wide surveillance system by establishing a system of civilian courts and oversight mechanisms. The proposed system has the potential to be used as a lever to monitor and suppress digital dissent and curtail online free speech. While these legislative measures now await parliamentary approval, if passed, they will pave the way for the Ministry of Information to monitor and control internet activity and potentially stifle oppositional voices. 

More pressingly, the recently passed Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023 broadens the scope of intelligence agencies’ powers and hardens legal ramifications for those found in contravention of intelligence work. The bill expands the definition of an “enemy,” prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of the identities of members of intelligence agencies, and grants sweeping powers to these agencies to search and seize without a warrant. The recent disappearances and reappearances of prominent political figures following this amendment’s passage only reinforce the initial critiques this amendment received. 

Meanwhile, amendments to the Pakistan Army Act are shamelessly redefining the military’s role in the economy. These amendments cement an economic role for the military as an institution, providing legal protection for any past, present, and future economic activity for the army and its numerous affiliated business ventures. They not only protect but legally enshrine the military’s ability to engage in business. 

Moreover, the new legislation includes stringent controls over the political activities of military personnel, a tactic aimed at containing potential dissent following the rumored factions that developed in response to Khan’s attempt to subvert the military as an institution. 

Dependency on the Military 

The Sharifs’ ability to survive continuously in Pakistan’s hostile political environment is a testament to their innate ability to negotiate governing agreements between the various political actors within Pakistan. But in their quest to maintain dominance and ensure their survival, they have inadvertently weakened the very position that they sought and claimed to defend. In a bid to regain power, the Sharifs have – whether knowingly or inadvertently – further institutionalized Pakistan’s military-civilian hybrid system. 

As has been the practice for decades, the dynastic political parties have sought military support to stay in power. In their efforts to win the army’s backing, these parties have continuously been forced to cede traditional civilian spaces to the military, leading to the bifurcation of power. Domains like foreign policy, defense, and internal security have been and continue to be dominated by the military – while other areas like socioeconomic policies, education, and cultural affairs are managed by elected dynastic politicians. 

As this bifurcation of power is legitimized through legal and constitutional measures, joint committees and periodic consultations with various stakeholders from civilian and military establishments are introduced to ensure the system’s stability. The decision by dynastic political parties to bifurcate their power and engage in joint consultation ultimately leads to a feedback loop that not only reinforces the practice, but institutionalizes it into tradition. 

Moving Forward?

As the traditionally reserved role of “democratic” Pakistani governments begins to be encroached upon by the ever-stronger military establishment, the Sharif government that is expected to emerge in 2024 will need to quickly provide a vision and road plan to steer the nation back toward economic growth as the military establishment’s now legitimized role in the economy also takes root. It is yet to be determined how much influence in economic decisions the military will seek to carve out, but recent developments seem to indicate that the military aims to ensure economic stability, as evidenced by the establishment of the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC)

In the short term, the Sharifs can count on the military and their former stronghold of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, to return to power. The legitimacy and effectiveness of the expected (albeit not guaranteed) Sharif government will be radically undermined, however, by the optics of Nawaz Sharif’s return amid Khan’s accusations and timely indictment. While doubts remain, Nawaz’s return to the premiership is expected to be buttressed by the military establishment, which is eager to engage with a familiar face. 

Nawaz Sharif is certainly a victim of the military establishment. But he is also a victim of his own disastrous policies and blunders. Shehbaz Sharif’s adherence to dynastic politics and religious shuttling between London and Islamabad only reinforced the Pakistani public’s belief that dynastic political parties have been the cause of their misery. The Sharifs’ periodic denouncements of the military followed by backroom deals with generals only entrench the system that Nawaz has been a victim of – but also benefited from. 

Maybe the fourth time’s a charm.