The Political Forces and Military Rule

Despite the military’s repeated intervention in politics and the long spells of martial law, military rule has faced a crisis of legitimacy in Pakistan. However, if the military leadership could not obtain the much coveted legitimacy for its extended role, the political elite was unable to counterbalance the military’s dominant role, and an adversarial relationship developed between the two. The political leaders, bitter at the loss of power, questioned the military’s right to rule, while the military leadership regarded political leaders and parties as opportunist, corrupt and disruptive.

The bitterness in political circles intensified during Zia’s rule because politicians were subjected to greater restriction during this period than during the two previous periods of military rule. Zia made no secret of his contempt for politicians and political parties, especially those who questioned his policies. He imposed a ban on political parties in 1979, although groups which supported his military regime, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim League (Pagaro Group), and some orthodox religious groups, were allowed to engage in low-key political activity.

The major goal of the Zia regime was to prevent dissident political groups from joining together to launch a national movement. The state apparatus was effectively used to contain political activities and to manipulate the weaknesses and differences between political parties. Whenever politicians attempted to establish coalitions, the central government would adopt measures to counteract them. The press was prevented from publishing the views of politicians in opposition to Zia. Restrictions were imposed on the movement of politicians; detention without trial, house arrest, and restrictions on travel outside the city or province of residence were quite common, and consequently discouraged leaders from interacting with each other. Political leaders were also often kept under surveillance by the intelligence agencies, which dissuaded many from establishing contact. Activists at the middle and lower levels were periodically arrested under martial law regulations.

The efficacy of the political forces was further undermined by their internal disharmony and organisational problems, which the government was able to manipulate to its advantage. Thus coalitions and united fronts created by the political parties to press their demands were often short-lived (Rizvi 1989:255-268).

Zia withdrew martial law on 30 December 1985 and restored a carefully tailored constitutional system that civilianised his regime, facilitated the co-option of a section of the civilian elite, and provided adequate guarantees for the entrenched position of the ruling generals. Zia continued to exercise the initiative in the political system through four major means. The military government did not revive the original 1973 constitution, but introduced amendments which drastically altered its character and greatly strengthened the position of the president vis-à-vis the prime minister and parliament. Further, the incorporation of martial law orders and policy decisions in the legal-constitutional structure of Pakistan under the Indemnity Law placed checks on the powers of the civilian courts and reinforced the position of the president. Also, the constitution was amended to allow President Zia ul Haq to continue to serve as chief of army staff after the restoration of civilian rule, making it possible for him to maintain the army as his exclusive preserve and giving him a relatively free hand to deal with military and defence affairs. And finally, Zia appointed as prime minister a little-known and weak leader, Mohammad Khan Junejo, whom he could control. While addressing the joint session of parliament on the eve of the withdrawal of martial law, Zia ul Haq declared that the ‘new order’ did not represent a departure from the policies of the martial law period: ‘It is no rival or adversary of the outgoing system. It is, in fact, the extension of the system in existence for the past several years’ (Muslim 31 December 1985).

Zia-ul-Haq jealously guarded his powers and wanted Junejo and other civilian leaders he co-opted simply to ‘carry out orders’ or undertake ‘public relations jobs’, rather than share power as equal partners. These leaders were often frustrated because of their inability to play an autonomous political role. Their frustration was accentuated by the fact that they needed the support and blessings of the president and the military to ward off challenges from the parties which stayed outside the civilianisation process and described the civilian government as a façade while Zia ul Haq continued to rule. As the civilian leadership of the post-martial law period discretely tried to distance itself from Zia to play an autonomous role, Zia dismissed the prime minister and dissolved the parliament in May 1988, thereby undoing the system he himself had created. His attempt to co-opt a new set of leaders came to an end when he died in August 1988.

The decision of the Pakistan Army not to assume power after Zia’s death facilitated the holding of general elections in November 1988 which brought Benazir Bhutto to power. Several factors explain the military’s decision to abide by the constitution. Despite the military’s repeated intervention in politics, a sense of professionalism and discipline is still evident in the officer corps, although this would not prevent them seizing power if they perceived it to be necessary. Second, since Zia had already announced that general elections would be held in November 1988, a military takeover would have been difficult to justify in a politically charged environment. Any postponement of elections would have reinforced the impression that the military was the major obstacle to the restoration of a democratic system. Third, the senior commanders were conscious of the fact that the military’s reputation had suffered through repeated involvement in politics, and especially because of Zia’s eleven-year rule. Stories circulated about the acquisition of wealth and lucrative civilian assignments by senior active duty and retired officers. The failure to dislodge Indian troops from the disputed Siachen Glacier in Kashmir, and the April 1988 explosion at the ammunition depot in Rawalpindi were often cited as clear proof of the decline of professionalism in the army. With criticism clearly focused on their involvement in domestic politics, senior commanders felt that a decision to honour the constitution would help restore their reputation. Fourth, General Beg, as the new COAS, could not be sure of the support of the army’s senior echelons. Although he had been vice COAS since March 1987, Zia, as COAS, had kept the army as his exclusive preserve by appointing his favorites to key positions. (Some of them died with Zia in the plane crash.) Beg, an Urdu-speaking ‘Mohajir’ immigrant from Uttar Pradesh, facing a majority of Punjabi and Pakhtun senior commanders, needed time to take stock of the situation and to consolidate his position. Fifth, the political situation in the aftermath of the plane crash was peaceful and stable; all major political parties and groups supported the constitutional transfer of power. The situation was thus not conducive to staging a coup. Any attempt to re-establish military rule at this stage would have been premature and would have encountered resistance from political circles.

The 1988 decision to allow a constitutional transfer of power to take place reflected a realistic assessment of the situation by the senior commanders. However, the military did not abandon interest in the political process as it impinged on its professional and corporate interests.