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Military and Politics in Pakistan

Military and Politics in Pakistan

Military is a formidable political actor in Pakistan, capable of influencing the nature and direction of political change. Pakistan’s reins have effectively been in the hands of the army for more than thirty-eight years since the country’s independence in 1947. Besides, it dominated the political system behind the scenes for more than two decades. Hence, there were only few intermittent periods of real democratic rule in Pakistan. The previous government of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the incumbent government of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) could come to power only after Musharraf’s national reconciliation mechanism. 


Military has always assumed a prominent role in Pakistan’s political affairs. Since the imposition of first martial law of 1958, the role of military has been expanding and, over the years, it has established its primacy over the political process that is manifested in different forms e.g. role in policymaking from behind the curtain, direct rule under martial law, installing of regimes that remained reliant on the generals and penetration into the civilian institutions and processes. This praetorianism has led to confrontation between different institutions and it has put a big question mark on the future of democracy in Pakistan.

Factors behind military interventions

i. Reactive Militarism

The first factor which is held responsible for the military interventions in Third World countries like Pakistan is reactive militarism. This factor is mainly due to the following two reasons:

(a) Deterioration of political situation or crisis of law and order

In Pakistan’s case, the military has intervened in politics under the pretext of political decay and collapse of the country’s economy. The coup d’état of 1958 was the most striking example of how an apolitical military could slowly be drawn into the political field due to the failure of the political leaders to run liberal democratic institutions.

(b) Crisis of legitimacy

Since military regimes play havoc with institutions and the spirit of constitution, they lack any kind of legitimacy in a democratic setup. In Pakistan, military regimes resorted to experimentation with the constitution. For example, General Ayub Khan took over in 1958 and put the Constitution of Pakistan, 1956, in abeyance and imposed the martial law. Even the political governments, who come to power through votes, face the crisis of legitimacy to some extent as hardly any party has been able to get more than fifty percent of votes.

ii. Overambitious or Bonapartist elements in army

This point is highlighted by various Western scholars and political scientists, such as Finer on “Man in Horseback” highlighted this point. The element of over-ambition encourages interventions. In the case of Pakistan, these Bonapartist tendencies may be traced far back; such as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case in 1951. Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf were very ambitious generals as they exceeded their authority and resorted to unconstitutional measures.

iii. Role of defeated and displaced leaders

In Pakistan, defeated and displaced leadership also plays a legitimizing role for military. It invites military to stage coup and overthrow the government. Reasons behind this tendency include tense government-opposition relations, as ruling party/coalition fails to accord opposition its rightful status. They push the opposition to the wall. In a reactive mood, opposition gravitates towards military. Moreover, on account of absence of vibrant political institutions, the politics has remained faction-ridden. Thus, military always finds allies among these factions who are always ready to give a legitimizing role to the military, in return. For example, in 1971, Ashgar Khan wrote a letter to Ziaul Haq inviting him to dethrone Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. During the 1990s, opposition wrote letters to the GHQ asking for a military intervention.

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About Iqra Riaz-Ud-Din

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