Pakistan's military has staged what many see as a creeping coup. Photo: iStock

When General Pervez Musharraf stepped down as Pakistan’s president in 2008, many had hoped the nation’s coup-riddled politics were headed in a decidedly more democratic direction.

Fast forward to the present, Pakistan has moved from a brief period as a functional electoral democracy to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s “hybrid” regime, where elected and military officials share political and economic power.

Pakistan’s Army, coup-prone and institutionally bound to act as the nation’s “guardian”, has re-established its political clout through appointments to civilian bureaucratic posts, re-cementing its previous day-to-day administration of the country.

It’s a phenomenon opposition critics now agitating on the nation’s streets refer to as a “creeping coup”, one that sportsman-turned-politician has willingly facilitated in exchange for the trappings of elected power.  

When Nawaz Sharif, the now self-exiled leader of Pakistan Muslim League-N, was ousted in 2017 through a Supreme Court disqualification verdict on corruption grounds, he claimed a so-called “alien force” was behind the ruling. He has since, including at People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) street rallies, openly said the security establishment plotted his demise.

The PDM, a coalition of 11 opposition parties now angling to knock the government from power, is a direct response to what they see as Khan’s “hybrid martial law” regime, which they contend has reversed democratic gains made through constitutional amendments passed in 2010. 

A Pakistan Navy cadet participates in a ceremony to celebrate the country’s 70th Independence Day at the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi on August 14, 2017. Photo: Agencies

Pakistani history shows that electoral democracy usually lasts about a decade before the military seizes control again. Ever since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, democracy-stunting martial laws have been imposed roughly every ten years, most recently under Musharraf’s 1999-2008 military regime.

The Army has since refrained from launching a direct coup, perhaps fearing a backlash in light of a constitutional amendment passed in 2010 that made any attempt to abrogate, suspend or overthrow the charter a treasonous offense. It also imposed a constitutional limitation on Pakistan’s higher judiciary’s powers to legitimize any such military take over.

Enter, instead, the “creeping coup.” Without firing a shot or rolling a tank, the Pakistan Army and the wider security establishment now overtly or de facto run key ministries and departments, giving security forces power over the nation’s day-to-day administration.

That includes some of the government’s top money-spinning agencies. For instance, the China-Pakistan Economic Authority (CPEC) is now being run by retired three-star Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa, who previously headed the Army’s media wing, known as the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).

The National Highway Authority (NHA) and Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), the Pakistan government’s two biggest departments, are both being run by ex-military men. Both departments are deeply involved in China-financed multi-billion dollar CPEC projects and closely liaise with the Army-run CPEC authority.

Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa serves a China’s conduit into Pakistan. Image: Facebook

The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s premier spy agency, meanwhile, is directly involved in the so-called “Karachi Transformation Plan.” The head of the ISI and Army Corp Commander for Karachi were both at a December 5 closed door meeting to discuss big ticket construction and development plans for Karachi, the nation’s largest city.

The “high ups” from the ISI and the Army were representing the federal government along with the federal minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar. The Chief Minister of Sindh, an elected leader of the province, “briefed” these “high-ups” about their plans to transform Karachi.

In another meeting held in Lahore on December 7, Punjab’s “civil-military” leadership reportedly came together to discuss future plans for containing the spread of the pandemic in its second wave.

The meeting, attended by Corps Commander Lahore Lieutenant General Majid Ehsan, resolved to start “joint efforts” involving the Army directly to help implement pandemic restrictions and presumably distribute Covid-19 related aid earmarked by the government.

Indeed, the recently established National Command and Control Center, tasked with overseeing the implementation of Covid-19 policy, is being run by Lieutenant General Hamood-uz-Zaman Khan. The military will thus have a large say on how Covid containment budgets are deployed and distributed.

Military power also reaches into key commercial realms, a trend that has gathered pace under Khan. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), the country’s national carrier, is currently being run by serving Air Marshall Arshad Malik.

Scores of other key state enterprises, including Sui Southern Gas Company Ltd. (SSGCL); Frontier Works Organization (FWO); Karachi Port Trust (KPT); and the Port Qasim Authority (PQA) are now being run by military men.

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

With such top brass control of political and economic levers, the military does not need martial law to expand and maintain its considerable interests. At the same time, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led regime often and readily suppresses anti-government and anti-military dissent, acting similar to previous repressive military dictatorships under the guise of democracy.

Khan’s facilitated “creeping coup” is becoming increasingly more apparent in the international eye.

“The perception that the era of military interventions in Pakistan has ended, particularly after the first-ever transfer of power to another civilian set-up in the wake of the 2013 general elections, has proved to be an illusion,” the European Foundation for South Asia Studies said in a recent report.

“It is not just that military interference in matters of governance continues to be a reality, rather the military has gone far beyond the traditional realms of national security and foreign policy and strengthened its hold over other aspects of state rule, including finance, commerce, interior, railways, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and even media management.”