Supporters of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an opposition alliance of 11 parties, gather during a political rally in Peshawar on November 22, 2020. Photo: AFP/Abdul Majeed

When Nawaz Sharif recently blamed the military for interference in Pakistan’s politics, it was hardly the first time the ex-premier aired the complaint and grievance. Unlike before, though, his complaint has become a nationwide rally call that is ringing across the country’s city streets.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a multiparty alliance consisting of national and regional political parties, is now agitating to bring down what they refer to as Prime Minister Imran Khan’s “hybrid regime”, a less-than-democratic mix of elected politicians and top brass military officials.

The opposition alliance, which has staged large demonstrations in various Pakistani cities in recent weeks, is protesting the military’s growing presence in otherwise civilian institutions and ministries and calling for civilian supremacy in governance.  

It also claims Khan’s regime has, since 2018, tried to hobble and hamstring the opposition through charges of alleged corruption they claim are politically motivated and false. As the PDM ramps up its rally call, no less than the future of Pakistani democracy is at stake

Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan’s three-time prime minister, is one of the movement’s loudest voices. He’s currently in exile after being forced from power in 2017 on charges of not disclosing and hiding financial assets.

The PDM’s cry for civilian supremacy, while more relevant than ever in the present political context, was first heard in the early 2000s when the PML-N and Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), then led by Benazir Bhutto, entered into a political agreement called the “Charter of Democracy (CoD).”

Supporters of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) shout slogans during a protest against the high prices in fuel products by the government, in Lahore on July 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Arif Ali

The CoD, signed in London in 2006, stipulated not only a thorough de-politicization of the military establishment but also stronger civilian control to prevent repeated future coups, a regular anti-democratic occurrence in the country. The agreement also sought to purge the 1973 constitution of various anti-democratic insertions made by successive military regimes.

Specifically, it aimed to make the judiciary more independent and transfer power to the periphery, granting long-sought-after autonomy to the country’s four constituting provinces.

While the CoD’s many ideals never materialized due to subsequent political upheavals, including the terror attack killing of Bhutto in December 2007, the agreement did crucially provide the basis for the constitution’s 18th Amendment, a watershed moment in the nation’s political and constitutional history.

Not only did the provision purge the constitution of the many retrograde amendments imposed by the military regimes of Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1987) and Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), it also genuinely transferred power to the provinces, providing unprecedented access to fiscal resources to local governments.

Moreover, Article 6 of the constitution, amended as part of the 18th Amendment, moved to outlaw military coups as “acts of high treason” that subvert, abrogate, suspend, or hold in abeyance the constitution. It also took away judicial powers to legitimize coups. Past putsches were nearly always legalized through court rulings.

This article is one of the main reasons why direct martial law has not been imposed in Pakistan in over a decade, and why the Pakistan Army has changed its political tactics from staging coups to political engineering and capture of key state agencies in an otherwise elected government.

Pakistan flag on soldier's uniform. Photo: iStock
A Pakistani flag on a soldier’s tunic. Photo: iStock

Critics say Khan’s “hybrid regime” epitomizes the qualitative change in Pakistan since the 18th Amendment’s passage.

The amendment’s original writers and PDM protesters believe one of the key objectives of Khan’s military-aligned regime is to rewrite the constitution, fully or partially, in ways that would reopen the path for future coups. They also claim Khan’s regime aims to re-centralize power from the provinces and hence make more funds available for military pilfering.

One leading PPP member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the 18th Amendment has diluted the army’s ability to “dip its hands into the national kitty and take whatever it wants” in the name of “national security.”  

Unsurprisingly, Khan has repeatedly spoken of the supposed “problems” that the 18th Amendment has created, a line that supports the army’s sustained campaign to dilute the amendment. In their latest salvo, they have repeatedly blamed provincial autonomy granted under the 18th Amendment as an impediment to developing and enforcing a cohesive Covid containment strategy.

The PDM’s 12 point charter, which lists the movement’s demands and goals, is full of clauses about upholding provincial rights, civilian supremacy and protection of the 18th amendment. Almost all of the parties in the PDM alliance were involved in the constitutional reform committee that produced the 18th Amendment in 2010.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Khan’s ruling party which is now championing a reversal and review of the amendment, was neither present in the 2008-2013 parliament, nor played any role in the drafting and passing of the amendment.

Until 2012, PTI was largely an insignificant political entity. It was only a year before the 2013 elections, which brought PML-N to power, that PTI received a boost as politicians from many national and regional parties flocked to join it under a promise of political change.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech during the Refugee Summit Islamabad to mark 40 years of hosting Afghan refugees, in Islamabad on February 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

“It’s sudden rise to prominence was always doubtful,” said a PML-N leader, who believes the PTI’s creation had initial, hidden military support. “And our doubts turned out to be true when Imran Khan and its partners in the hybrid regime started speaking, soon after coming into power in 2018, against the 18th Amendment.”

While PTI does not command the required two-thirds of parliament needed to undo or dilute the amendment, its campaign to scrap it speaks volumes about its military-backed centralizing tendencies that continue to shape Pakistan’s politics.

Whether the PDM succeeds or fails in ousting Khan’s government will determine the future course of Pakistan’s politics. Its failure will fragment the now uniquely united opposition, which history shows will leave smaller opposition parties vulnerable to military pressure and manipulation.

Its success, on the other hand, would further shrink the space for non-political and non-elected forces and more firmly consolidate Pakistan’s still wobbly democratic foundations. As PDM protesters ramp up their street campaign for change, Pakistan’s democratic future hangs in the balance.