Coronavirus crisis makes it clear who is calling the shots in Pakistan—Military, of course

Imran Khan, brought to power in 2018, was the beginning of a hybrid civil-military government in which the Army chief has greater influence.

Aday before Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior issued coronavirus notifications announcing deployment of the country’s military in aid of civilian authorities in Islamabad, Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared clueless.

Khan made a speech on 22 March, in which he did not even mention these extraordinary measures to fight Covid-19. This may be because, as sources suggest, the notifications were issued by the Army’s man, Interior Minister Ijaz Shah, rather than the prime minister himself.

Pakistan PM’s limitations

Khan proved unable to rise to the occasion that critics believe indicate his political and intellectual limitation. He even walked out of an e-meeting with opposition leaders. Moreover, his Special Assistant for Overseas Pakistanis Zulfiqar Bukhari is accused of mishandling the quarantine situation at the Pakistan-Iran border. And his adviser for health, Dr Zafar Mirza is under investigation going on against him by the Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) for smuggling face masks.

Furthermore, in his speeches, Imran Khan appeared confused and not in charge of the situation. From poorly explaining the risks associated with the spread of the deadly coronavirus to badly calculating the pros and cons of a lockdown, the Pakistan Prime Minister has looked clueless. Much to his discomfort, his detractors, like Sindh chief minister Murad Ali Shah, who along with his and Pakistan Peoples Party leader Bilawal Bhutto, have earned accolades for a mature handling of the crisis.

But then, Covid-19 is a challenge that seems to have exposed leaderships in many parts of the world without the military moving in. It took UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson weeks before announcing a partial lockdown in his country. US President Donald Trump, it appears, is ready to sacrifice people’s lives by announcing that he wants to end the lockdown by Easter open up the US in the coming weeks.

The dependence on military

In Pakistan, calling the military might not have been Imran Khan’s decision. He even rubbished the idea of a complete lockdown. His flawed argument was later repeated by his Special Assistant for Information Firdous Ashiq Awan. Pakistanis first heard about a lockdown for the first time from through the press conference of the new DG ISPR Major General Babur Iftikhar. Although no law is broken, this is the first time that Article 245 of the 1973 Constitution, pertaining to military’s role to assist civilians, is invoked all over Pakistan. It is almost a reminder of and a variation on the 1958 martial law. Then the military came, on asking of a civil-bureaucrat-turned-politician and stayed for longer. 

Under this constitutional provision, the high courts of the provinces lose power, which is why the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government resisted its invocation in Sindh during the late 1980s and in the early 1990s, when then Army chief Mirza Aslam Beg insisted its invocation in Sindh deployed Pakistan Rangers — the country’s paramilitary force — “to impose law and order” and in “aid of civil authority”. The Sindh government led by Syed Abdullah Ali Shah only learnt about it through media found via media by deploying the para-military force, Rangers.

Senior Pakistani journalist Murtaza Solangi says the last time Article 245 was invoked in Pakistan was in 2014 in Islamabad during Imran Khan’s anti-government protest. But back then, the high courts had continued to function as the law was not applicable in rest of the country.

This legal blanket to get involved in governance, even more than before, will only enhance control of the state by the armed forces without fear of repercussions for the Army due to a full-fledged martial law.

Considering the fact that the coronavirus threat is here to stay for some time at least, one is not sure as to when will the military withdraw. In the words of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, “Temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies.”

New model of civil-military relations

The army’s decision of such soft-hard intervention is understandable and logical as per the new model of Pakistan’s civil-military relations, in which the army hopes to guard its interest and maintain control while not losing its political legitimacy or coming totally at the forefront.

Imran Khan coming to power in 2018 was the beginning of this hybrid civil-military government in which the army chief has greater influence such as intervening in economic matters or other issues that otherwise fall within the purview of the civilians. This was presented as civil-military being on the same page.

Despite constant rumours of Khan to be gotten rid of that the Pakistani military will get rid of Imran Khan, there seems little evidence for that to suggest it would happen. Khan’s biggest protection is that while other political parties can still survive if their top leaders are replaced by someone else in the government, this cannot happen with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The overall edifice of this party would collapse if Imran Khan is thrown out, unless the army finds some ingenious method to keep PTI alive.

Under Pakistan’s new civil-military formula, governments must complete terms even if they are weak and unstable. Bringing back older parties like the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) with an alternative and military-preferred leadership of the likes of Shehbaz Sharif through an internal political coup is also being talked about.

People noticed the return of Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother to Pakistan on the last flight from London before the country shut all international flights. Some observers believe that the coronavirus situation may have given the army an opportunity to dump their Imran Khan baggage because he seems to have proven costly for the military’s legitimacy. Burdened by Khan’s highly inappropriate management of the state, it’s the army that has come under criticism for ‘selecting’ him.

Options before PM and Pakistan Army

Though PM Khan is unable to address governance issues, he seems well aware of the threat to his power. In an attempt to consolidate his position, Khan has appointed two Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) members, his coalition partners, as federal ministers.

Imran Khan heads a precarious coalition at the Centre and in Punjab. But he forgets that the army is far more adept at playing such games.

Rawalpindi could consider either of the two available options. First, allow Imran Khan to continue his tenure while controlling things much more proactively. Second, to try and help with an internal change and bring about a national government that may include all other political stakeholders to survive through the crisis and more. The Army’s preference would be a more intelligent method, like in Sindh, where the civilian government seems more in charge of things related to the handling of the pandemic while taking Rawalpindi on board for its decision for lockdown. In any case, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) wants to cooperate with the Army and get a nod for its young leadership for the future.

Notwithstanding the severity of Covid-19, the military is keen to repair damage to its credibility, especially in the face of a problem like Imran Khan that it created. The DG ISPR’s press conference, which was done professionally and was more composed than those of his predecessor Asif Ghafoor, was an exercise in restoring military’s overall legitimacy.

The announcement regarding all military personnel to contribute a day’s worth of pay for coronavirus emergency will soften hearts. It would definitely make people overlook the fact that troops deployed during emergencies get a special allowance, the amount for which is higher than the contribution itself. Furthermore, the power will allow the military greater intervention in the distribution of resources that had become a problem for it under the 18th amendment to the 1973 Constitution, which resulted in greater financial autonomy to the provinces.

Irrespective of its choices on the political side, the army is yet again poised to have the last laugh at the expense of the civilian stakeholders.

The civilian law enforcement agencies and doctors were already fighting with the pandemic despite dearth of resources. The traffic on highways has reduced substantially and a system, though working with fits and starts, was already forcing people into isolation.

If there is anything that Pakistan needs right now, it is the immediate diversion of non-development expenditure to meet medical and other needs arising out of the pandemic. This unfortunately may not happen with the army fully in-charge of governance and national crisis management. Selecting weak and divided leadership has historically proven as the best formula for return to power.

Note: This article originally published here