In 2008, when Pakistan transitioned from nine years of military rule under Pervez Musharraf to an elected civilian government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), many believed that Pakistan’s ‘culture of military coups’ was headed in a decisively more democratic direction. The transition came about as a result of the ‘Lawyers’ Movement’, a mass protest initiated by lawyers from March 2007 to 2009, following the unconstitutional suspension of Pakistan’s Supreme Court justice. These hopes for democracy were strengthened when the 18th constitutional amendment was unanimously passed by the Parliament in April 2010. The amendment not only constitutionally blocked military coups by strengthening Article 6 of the 1973 Constitution – which barred any person from abrogating, suspending or holding the constitution in abeyance, and stripped Pakistan’s higher courts of their powers to legitimise military coups – but also added a number of other provisions to strengthen the hold of the civilian political forces on the polity. Even more significant was how it reversed Pakistan’s centralised political system by transferring powers and financial resources to the provinces. This was a major departure from the military rule of Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) and Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) when Islamabad controlled all powers and financial resources to the exclusion of the smaller provinces.
In 2021, however, Pakistan’s military has significantly regained control of politics, with current and former military personnel swamping civilian institutions, constituting a virtual ‘hybrid martial law’ regime. While the militarisation of the polity generally weakens democracy, in the Pakistani context, the military’s dominant role also has serious implications for the multi-ethnic federation as well, undermining provincial rights and autonomy guaranteed through the 18th amendment.
That the Pakistan military has a strong preference for a centralised and a unitary form of government under a presidential system is well-established. Indeed, the independence movement that swept across East Pakistan in early 1971, and which culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971, came after over 13 years of military-cum-presidential rule under Ayub Khan (1958-1969) and Yahya Khan (1969-1971), followed by the military regime’s refusal to respect the outcome of the 1970 general elections and hand over power to the elected majority of East Pakistan-based political party Awami League. Therefore, a return to a form of politics in which the armed forces play a decisive and a leading role, directly encroaching upon provincial rights, has the potential to trigger ethno-national movements demanding more autonomy and the right to self-determination, possibly even including separation from Pakistan.
PTI and the presidential system
Ever since the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) rise to power through the July 2018 general elections, Pakistan’s digital and social media platforms have been swamped with open and discreet campaigns advocating Pakistan’s turn to a presidential system within a centralised state structure. In June 2021, an Urdu hashtag on Twitter that translated as ‘The Presidential system is around the corner’ was a trending topic in the country.
There are two principal reasons why the PTI is running these campaigns. First, it is easier for the PTI to target the 18th amendment as it was not part of the Parliament that passed constitutional reforms in 2010. Secondly, the PTI, in a bid to secure its own weak political standing in the coalition government through the military establishment’s support, has been more than willing to allow the military a greater say in political matters of national significance, including the Constitution and the 18th amendment. The PTI-led coalition government’s subsequent transition to a ‘hybrid martial law’ regime has increased apprehension in the provinces that the federating units and ethnic groups will have little political relevance and less influence on national policy, due to the military’s open preference for a centralised polity.
In the Pakistani context, the military’s dominant role also has serious implications for the multi-ethnic federation as well, undermining provincial rights and autonomy guaranteed through the 18th amendment.
This is evident from the way the regime has been able to completely abandon important federal institutions like the Council of Common Interests (CCI). The CCI consists of representatives of central government and all federating units, and is responsible for devising policies on matters (listed in part two of the federal legislative list of the 1973 Constitution) that fall within the common jurisdiction of both the provinces and the central government. According to Raza Rabbani, who headed the Parliamentary Committee for Constitutional Reforms (PCCR) in 2010 to design and draft the 18th constitutional amendment, a strategy of politically disbanding federal institutions like the CCI has grave implications for federalism. It weakens the existing federal set-up and helps critics of the 18th amendment to develop a narrative that favours and justifies a presidential system in which all powers are concentrated within one person.
That federal institutions like the CCI – which do not have any representation from the armed forces – have been tactically replaced by institutions like the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) in which the military is a leading player, shows how provincial input in common matters of national significance is being institutionally undermined and progressively eroded.
Accordingly, whereas the 1973 Constitution stipulates at least one CCI meeting in three months, the PTI-led government has only held nine meetings in its first three years of power from July 2018 to June 2021. Not only have meetings not been held, but the CCI has also become a centre of increasing differences between pro and anti-18th amendment political forces. The parallel existence of army-led administrative institutions like the NCOC has further eroded the political relevance of constitutional-federal bodies like the CCI.
The CCI’s growing irrelevance – which symbolises a decreasing political role of the provinces – exists in combination with a concerted political effort of the regime to deprive the same provinces of their due financial resources.
Holding the money
For Pakistan’s provinces, at stake are not only the political powers transferred to them through the 18th amendment, but also the seventh National Finance Commission (NFC) award implemented in 2009. Prior to this, the military sponsored 2006 NFC award gave the centre about 59 percent of financial resources, with about 41 percent going to the provinces. After Pervez Musharraf’s exit from Pakistan, under a new political consensus, 57.5 percent of financial resources were transferred to the provinces, with 42.5 percent going to the federal government. The transfer of more financial resources to the provinces happened in conjunction with the transfer of political powers and functions to the provinces through the 2010 amendment. Importantly, it not only abolished the concurrent list and transferred all functions to the provinces, but also gave an additional protection to the NFC award, with Article 160 of the 1973 Constitution clearly saying that the share of the provinces in each subsequent NFC award could not be less than the previous award, that is, the 2009 NFC award.
The hybrid martial-law regime has been taking steps to introduce a common national curriculum in Pakistan with a view to reinforce a common national identity that suppresses ethnic/territorial identities.
In other words, the 18th amendment aimed to institutionalise devolved federalism in Pakistan. It removed the constitutional changes that Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf had made through the 8th (1985) and the 17th (2003) constitutional amendments, respectively. And it marked a major departure from the military-created and military-dominated centralised presidential system.
For most of Pakistan’s political history, the Pakistan military has been able to, as Farhatullah Babar of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) said in his interview with the author, “freely dip its hands into the national kitty and take whatever it wanted.” The 2010 amendment, by providing a constitutional protection to the NFC, has helped change this scenario, stripping the military of its ability to arbitrarily subject the financial resources of the state to its sole service. According to most political observers in Pakistan, the lack of adequate control over the country’s financial resources is the key reason for the military’s push against the 18th amendment through a direct collaboration with, presence in and control of the present ‘hybrid regime.’
Accordingly, ever since 2018, the regime has been trying to divert as many provincial financial resources to the centre as possible. In December 2019, all four of Pakistan’s provinces, instead of spending the money on their development, returned a cash surplus of PKR 202 billion (USD 1.24 billion) to the centre. According to provincial representatives, the provinces were under the pressure of the federal institutions – which have a marked military presence – to return this amount.
That major political parties continue to oppose a reversal of the 18th amendment explains why the PTI government has not been able to muster a two-thirds majority to dismantle it.
This is apart from the push to establish a new National Finance Commission with a view to devising a new formula for the distribution of financial resources, with more deployed towards the centre than the provinces. In fact, the campaign for a new financial distribution formula was supported by Prime Minister Imran Khan himself soon after coming into power when he sweepingly declared that the 18th amendment had bankrupted the Centre.
This narrative reflects the Pakistan Army’s own stance as well. For instance, the so-called ‘Bajwa Doctrine’, – so named after the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa – which advocates the Pakistan military’s direct role in politics and governance of the country, reflects a strong undercurrent within the military establishment about how the 2010 amendment has created an imbalance between the centre and the provinces, and that this imbalance has ‘weakened’ the country.
In my own various interviews with former military officials, who regularly represent the military’s viewpoint on various media as ‘analysts’, it became clear that the military establishment has strong reservations vis-a-vis the 18th amendment. This is not only because it has made the federal provinces financially more powerful and that the military no longer has unlimited access to the country’s national kitty, but also because the amendment has made it possible for the provinces to design their own educational curriculum, enabling them to promote regional or ethnic identities at the expense of a national ‘Pakistani identity’. In doing so, they are departing from a particular vision of Pakistani national identity that all of Pakistan’s military regimes have tended to reinforce through both political and military means.
As Aqil Shah, a Pakistan scholar currently based at the University of Oklahoma, wrote in his 2014 book, The Army and Democracy, the Pakistan army’s support for a common national identity reinforces its advocacy for a centralised unitary system of state in which provinces and regional or ethnic identities hold no relevance.
Accordingly, the hybrid martial-law regime has been taking steps to introduce a common national curriculum in Pakistan with a view to reinforce a common national identity that suppresses ethnic/territorial identities. In the words of one observer, “the push for homogenising the curriculum feeds directly into the Pakistan military’s drive against the 18th amendment and its tacit support for a presidential system.” Promotion of regional identities through regional curricula could lead to Pakistan’s “eventual territorial disintegration”, according to a prominent retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army. Therefore, the drive to enforce a single curriculum throughout Pakistan – which the provinces are resisting – reflects how the traditional centrist forces led by the military continue to push for a political system that not only negates and effaces regional identities and interests, but also sees the promotion of these identities as anti-state activity.
Pakistan’s military has a direct presence in federal institutions – such as the civil aviation authority along with Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), and state agencies in charge of health, water, highways, and a recently established authority for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). At the same time, the military establishment continues to directly control and overshadow provinces like the restive Balochistan, where an ethno-national movement for independence has been gaining traction since at least 2006, and former FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), too, effectively undermining the federation.
For Pakistan’s provinces, at stake are not only the political powers transferred to them through the 18th amendment, but also the seventh National Finance Commission (NFC) award implemented in 2009.
This explains why movements like Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement) have emerged in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KpK) demanding complete demilitarisation of their region. In Balochistan, as many political observers and people from Pakistan’s mainstream political parties believe, the military’s active role in politics has led to the emergence of what some refer to as ‘shadow political parties’, such as the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), which represent and protect the political interests of the military, undermining the province and its political institutions. The BAP, which was created only a few months before the July 2018 elections and dramatically succeeded in establishing its own government in Balochistan in alliance with the PTI, has effectively sidelined Balochistan’s prominent nationalist parties, which represent and echo a popular demand for demilitarisation of the province and transfer of political control to its elected representatives. This demand exists in addition to a militant Baloch insurgency seeking to create an independent Balochistan.
While separatist movements do not currently exist in Pakistan’s other provinces, there is no gainsaying that the military-led push towards undermining the 1973 Constitution has the potential to trigger a fresh wave of ethno-national movements across Pakistan. Leading political parties of Pakistan are aware of this danger. That’s why, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of 11 major political parties, has the question of the protection of the 18th amendment prominently placed on its agenda, with its president, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, vowing to protect the amendment and Pakistan’s federalism from any impending political threats.
That major political parties continue to oppose a reversal of the 18th amendment explains why the PTI government has not been able to muster a two-thirds majority to dismantle it. However, the fact that the PTI has allowed the military to entrench itself in institutions of governance, and continues to pursue a combination of policies that directly undermine or bypass the provincial powers enshrined by the 18th amendment show that the militarisation of the polity has become a major political threat to the post-2010 structure of Pakistan’s multi-ethnic federation.