Pakistan's permanent crisis

Ayesha Siddiqa
15 May 2007

The streets of Pakistan have in recent days resonated with strikes, gunfire, and the cries of demonstrators. A crisis sparked by the suspension of the supreme court's chief justice on 9 March 2007 has exploded into a full-scale emergency with no end in sight. The turmoil raises acute questions about Pakistan's political future. But it also highlights a more deep-rooted question regarding the very possibility of political and economic progress in a country so heavily dominated by one institution: the Pakistani military.

The fact that Pakistan's crisis has turned violent - with forty-one people killed in Karachi over the weekend of 12-13 May and the assassination of a leading court official in Islamabad - adds a dangerous twist and makes the prospect of a quick resolution even more difficult. What is sure is that the country's general-president, Pervez Musharraf, is hard at work in the attempt to ensure his own survival. But where are the allies of the beleaguered leader, apart from the members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) who were deeply implicated in the Karachi events? Here there are persistent rumours of a deal between Musharraf and the former prime minister and exiled opposition leader, Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based independent political and defence analyst. Her book, Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy is published by Pluto Press (April 2007)
There has been no formal announcement, though Bhutto has mentioned the possibility of an arrangement between her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the president in the parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for October 2007. If such a deal were made, Bhutto would expect to become prime minister for a third time with Musharraf remaining as president. Each side might benefit: Bhutto would secure a share of power and the lifting of the numerous corruption cases pending against her, while Musharraf would create a buffer protecting him from a tide of multiple, accumulating pressures. The partnership would also allay Musharraf's most potent anxiety, by appeasing the doubts of his foreign patrons about his ability to keep the religious extremist forces in the country at bay. The PPP would be a congenial partner in the effort to display to the world the liberal face of Pakistan.

A stifled polity

If the Musharraf-Bhutto deal does go through - and in the present fluid situation nothing is certain - one important result will be to reformat Pakistan military's partnership: shifting it from a military-mullah alliance to a military-liberal alliance (which was also the case during the 1960s). Such a marriage of convenience against religious extremism and cultural conservatism would be highly attractive to Pakistan's main external patron, the United States. The new relationship would need to be secured politically, the most likely mechanism being the manipulation of the electoral process that has so often been the forte of Pakistan's army and its numerous intelligence agencies.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Irfan Husain, "Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Musharraf’s predicament, Pakistan's agony"
(5 September 2006)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan on edge"
(25 September 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: zero-sum games people play"
(6 December 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (19 March 2007)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state"
(12 April 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: sliding into anarchy"
(26 April 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Rising, uprising Pakistan"
(14 May 2007)

There are many imponderables on the road from the Musharraf-Bhutto dalliance to arranged marriage. But one thing is clear: the partnership will not strengthen democracy in Pakistan.

The reason is rooted in the nature of the Pakistani military and its political influence. In the past, alliances between the country's various civilian leaders and its military have served only to consolidate the armed forces' control of political power. Today, the military remains the key political player, constantly seeking to cultivate bonds of dependence with politicians and among civil society in pursuit of its larger political and economic goals. In fact, after sixty years of independence Pakistan is witnessing the integration of elite interests, including those of the senior military class and its cadres. In this process, there is developing a fusion of military, political and economic power - an outcome inimical either to better governance or stronger democracy in the country.

The military's ambitions are not arbitrary but rooted in the organisation's range of material and institutional interests in Pakistan. The protection of these is vital to sustain the lifestyles of its officer cadre, in particular, senior generals, both retired and those still serving, appreciate the benefits accruing from a financial empire worth billions of dollars. This vast apparatus encompasses four military welfare foundations (valued at around $2 billion), but also includes hundreds of large-, medium- and small-scale business ventures which the military more or less directly runs. For instance, one major cargo transport giant is a military firm; and other army units have run everything from Lahore petrol-pumps to toll-levies on a national highway. The estimated total worth of this economy exceeds $100 billion (see Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state", 12 April 2007).

These extensive financial interests guarantee the armed forces both organisational autonomy and a regular flow of resources from the public and private sectors to enrich senior officers. But the military's power goes even wider: it extends, for example, to the acquisition of state-owned land with impunity. It is now common for the government to dispossess landless peasants from state land they have in desperation occupied and transfer ownership to military personnel. By these and other means, the military has come to control about 11.58 million acres of state land (12% of the total). Much of this is then distributed to its personnel for private benefit (in return for a very modest rent).

This policy is ostensibly designed to benefit all military personnel, including soldiers, but the main beneficiary (especially from urban land distribution) is the officer cadre. In rural areas, too, senior officers receive extra subsidies such as farm-to-market roads, access to water and allowance to use soldiers as farm-workers. The similarities to the position of local feudal lords are more than contingent: in fact, the military economy is in effect a pre-capitalist socio-economic structure whose assets embody comparative political power rather than act as a source of capital formation.

A crony economy

Pervez Musharraf's eagerness to reward the members of his primary political constituency has meant that this system of rewards has flourished under his seven years of military rule. Behind Pakistan's political games and calculations, the system forms the basis of a "social contract" under which the military fraternity and its cronies will continue to enjoy access to resources and opportunities as long as they remain loyal. This formula is also the basis for the enhancement of the military's political power.

The domination of civilian institutions by the armed forces is at the heart of Pakistan's permanent crisis. This political-economic nexus entrenches political cronyism - and in a way that implicates international players too. In a situation of such extensive military control, forces (civilian, political, or Pakistan's foreign allies) which desire to advance their interests in the country have no option but to seek access to and preference from the state's most powerful institution.

The economics and politics reinforce each other. The result is the emergence of a Pakistani ruling elite that comprises a complex network of senior military, significant industrialists, businessmen, landed-feudal owners, civil bureaucracy and now even media gurus. Some members of this elite coalition may not be entirely comfortable with the military's overarching control, but as a whole it has become a pillar of Pakistan's authoritarian form of governance. This system is a huge obstacle in the way of progress towards democracy in Pakistan.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData