In late July and early August this year, Pakistan’s outgoing parliament passed two amendments that have significantly altered the political landscape in favour of the military establishment. The Army Act (Amendment Bill) 2023 and the Official Secrets Act (Amendment Bill) 2023 reflect, more than anything else, the very consistent decline in Pakistan’s democratic politics since the end of Pervez Musharraf’s regime in 2008. Both acts give primacy to the Pakistani military leadership and its security agencies in the development of the economy and the maintenance of law and order. More importantly, these laws have created jurisdiction for the military to operate at both the federal and provincial levels of the polity. This is likely to have serious implications for Pakistan’s already precarious federation, which is facing multiple challenges including a separatist movement in Balochistan.
For instance, Section 175-E of the Army Act says, “The Pakistan Army may, upon direction or with the concurrence of relevant authorities of the appropriate government [federal and provincial] in the prescribed manner, directly or indirectly, carry out activities related to, inter alia, national development and advancement of national or strategic interest.”
On the surface, the act links the army’s political and economic activities with directions received from the “appropriate” governments. But the Pakistan Army, with its long history of direct and indirect involvement in politics and the economy and influence within political parties, is now in a position where manufacturing these “directions” or eliciting “concurrence” will hardly be a problem.
Pakistan’s caretaker government recently made an amendment to the National Database and Registration Authority Rules, 2020, to allow for a sitting serviceman to be appointed as chairman of the authority. This will allow the army to control NADRA and will enhance its capacity for surveillance of citizens.
Moreover, the latest version of the Official Secrets Act empowers security agencies with highly questionable powers to apprehend any person or entity deemed an “enemy”. In many ways, these powers are tantamount to legalising enforced disappearances – a burning issue in Balochistan for almost two decades now, and more recently a serious concern in other provinces as well. If regional governments do not toe the army’s line, the latter has amassed enough power to target the political leadership as well.
The military leadership already has a dominant position in Pakistan’s political structure, institutionalised by the National Security Council. The NSC was created as early as 1969 and has been sidelined and revived at various points over the decades depending on the regime in power. Most significantly, the NSC was promoted by Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, when he presided over a military regime, and by Pervez Musharraf when he came to power in 1999, also imposing military rule. Its purpose, as a body comprising civilian and military appointees, was to serve as a consultative body to the head of state. The council became dormant after Musharraf’s ouster in 2008 but this legacy of direct military rule was revived in 2013 by a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government. Since then, the NSC has been the highest decision-making body in Pakistan.
However, the revival of the NSC was hardly the first step towards the post-Musharraf revival of the military’s involvement in politics. In 2010, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was given a three-year-long extension as the chief of army staff in view of an ongoing wave of terrorist attacks. Service extension is a practice that Pakistan’s military dictators, including Musharraf and Zia ul-Haq, introduced and used to prolong their own rules. Both developments together – the NSC’s revival and the army chief’s service extension – were signals of Pakistan’s post-2008 transformation into a hybrid democracy. Hybrid regimes typically combine democratic features, such as the holding of regular elections, with autocratic ones like political repression.
In 2018, the military establishment’s support for Imran Khan – then still an upstart on his way to the prime minister’s office – further transformed the hybrid democracy into, in the words of the political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, a hybrid martial law system. According to Siddiqa, in hybrid martial law, all real power lies with an army while a civilian government is relegated to the position of junior partner. In Pakistan, this system was reinforced by an active manipulation of provincial politics as well.
Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), held electoral power in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwah between 2018 and 2022. The military establishment-backed Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) won provincial elections in Balochistan and became the PTI’s coalition partner in 2018. A key factor weakening Khan’s position and contributing to his eventual exit from power in April 2022, accompanied by an acrimonious fall-out with the military establishment, was the BAP’s withdrawal from the coalition, turning Khan’s majority into a minority. The BAP was among 11 parties that subsequently joined the new ruling coalition, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), led by Shahbaz Sharif of the PML-N as the prime minister. This government passed the amendments to the Army Act and the Official Secrets Act before its term ended in early August.
The Pakistan Army, with its long history of direct and indirect involvement in politics and the economy and influence within political parties, is now in a position where manufacturing these “directions” or eliciting “concurrence” will hardly be a problem.
Khan has filed a petition against the new amendments. Meanwhile, their implementation is being overseen by the caretaker government, which recently took over from the PDM in preparation for general elections. Unsurprisingly, the caretaker government includes members of the BAP: the new prime minister, Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar; the interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti; and the chairman of the senate, Sadiq Sanjrani.
The trajectory sketched out here shows that the two laws are not exceptions in but rather a continuation of political and institutional developments militarising the country in unprecedented ways. This militarisation of politics, where it affects the federal level, also affects the provinces. This is not only because the military’s power neutralises provincial autonomy granted via the 18th Amendment in 2010 but also because regional parties – mainly the nationalist parties based in the provinces – are most likely to bear the brunt of the resulting exclusion of civilian parties from politics. Even if they win elections, the Army Act allows the military to play a role in the provinces to achieve largely undefined “strategic interests”. For separatists in Balochistan, this will be yet another reminder that the vast majority of the Baloch have no real power and autonomy. For nationalists in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, this will be a sharp reminder that mere constitutional arrangements granting autonomy are meaningless.
The military leadership already has a dominant position in Pakistan’s political structure, institutionalised by the National Security Council. The NSC was created as early as 1969 and has been sidelined and revived at various points over the decades depending on the regime in power.
More importantly, the militarisation of politics also affects the province of Punjab in significant ways. As it stands, the PTI enjoys deep support in the province. When Khan was arrested on 9 May 2023, PTI supporters attacked and burnt the corps commander’s house in Lahore, Punjab’s capital city, leading to a very expansive crackdown on PTI supporters in Punjab as well as other provinces.
The subsequent neutralisation of the PTI and the postponement of general elections, otherwise due in November, have offered a perfect scenario for the military establishment to expand its presence across state institutions. The PDM government that preceded the caretaker government constituted a Special Investment Facilitation Council that included the military leadership. In this capacity, the chief of army staff recently met Pakistan’s leading businessmen to discuss ways to take Pakistan out of its present economic crisis. Moreover, the caretaker government recently made an amendment to the National Database and Registration Authority (Appointment and Emoluments of Chairman and Members) Rules, 2020, to allow for a sitting serviceman to be appointed as chairman of the authority. The amendment will allow the army to control NADRA and will enhance its capacity for surveillance of citizens.
These changes are not a temporary phenomenon. Even if general elections are held and a new government assumes power, it will most likely comprise the parties that made these changes in the first place – the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party. The PTI is in crisis with Imran Khan in jail on multiple counts of corruption and there is no other political challenger facing the military or the PDM parties. For many, the results of the next elections are a foregone conclusion. What remains, therefore, is a long phase of militarised politics – a system that serves, first and foremost, the military’s institutional interests.