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Pakistan's Ruling Party, Powerful Military Accused Of Trying To Roll Back 'Democratizing Laws'

The legacy of Musharraf, the Pakistani general who seized power in a 1999 coup.
The legacy of Musharraf, the Pakistani general who seized power in a 1999 coup.

During his iron-fisted reign, Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf toppled an elected government, dismissed judges, suspended the constitution, and imposed emergency rule.

General Musharraf’s bloodless coup in 1999 restored power to the military, which has ruled for around half of the country’s 73-year history, staging three coups d'etat.

When Musharraf was forced to resign in 2008 amid widespread protests, Pakistan's new civilian government and opposition parties were united in thwarting attempts by the military to forcibly seize power again.

In 2010, President Asif Ali Zardari enacted sweeping constitutional reforms that undid provisions that military dictators had introduced to tighten their grip on power and legitimize their coups.

Under the 18th Amendment, the president no longer had the authority to dissolve parliament and impose emergency rule on his own. The courts no longer had jurisdiction to validate suspensions of the constitution. And powers were transferred from the presidency to a prime minister and his cabinet.

The amendment also transferred power from the center to the provinces, restored parliamentary democracy, and closed off paths to generals overturning civilian rule.

Now, a decade on from that landmark move, there are fears that the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is backed by the military, is seeking to roll back the changes, which are widely seen as the bulwark of the democratization process in the South Asian nation of 220 million people.

The ruling Tehrik-e Insaf party (PTI) has called for a review to “fix” what it perceives as flaws in the 18th Amendment, including restoring federal authority over legislation and finances.

The government has cited the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, arguing that the amendment has limited the federal government's authority to devise a national strategy to fight the COVID-19 disease. Pakistan had officially registered more than 35,000 coronavirus infections and 770 deaths as of May 14.

Critics and opposition parties accuse the government of using the pandemic as a pretext to undermine the legislation and reassert national clout from the political center.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, has argued that reining in the amendment would “amount to a demoralizing defeat for the forces of democracy in a nation where such forces have long struggled to secure a sustained foothold.”

“The 18th Amendment has long endured as a brave and bold achievement that showcases the very real potential for strong democracy in Pakistan,” he said.

'Weak Points'

The ruling PTI party has discussed reviewing and possibly changing the 18th Amendment since coming to power nearly two years ago.

Opposition politicians have accused the powerful military of manipulating the 2018 elections to help the PTI win.

Since the coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan, Khan's government has intensified its criticism of the reforms, which devolved many powers and resources to the provinces.

Information Minister Shibli Faraz warned on May 1 that Pakistan was facing an “unprecedented challenge” from the coronavirus and the amendment had tied the government’s hands, lamenting that the federal government could “only issue policy guidelines.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

Then Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said on May 12 that the government did not want to scrap the amendment, but he added that its “weak points should be reviewed and addressed.”

The federal government has come under criticism for its perceived mishandling of the outbreak and for only imposing a partial lockdown.

The opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP) that runs Sindh Province, which includes the industrial and financial center of Karachi, has imposed a strict lockdown and won praise for its management of the outbreak.

'Undemocratic Elements'

Opposition parties have condemned government calls to review the amendment.

Ahsan Iqbal, a former member of parliament from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, told RFE/RL that the federal government has “raised the 18th Amendment issue to hide its poor governance.”

The ruling PTI party has come under growing scrutiny over the country's economic performance, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak.

Senator Usman Khan Kakar of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party told RFE/RL that any party that backed the rolling-back of the amendment could undermine national interests and, in particular, the interests of minority groups like ethnic Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhis.

“Repealing or changing the amendment will have serious repercussions," he said.

Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator, was one of the framers of the 18th Amendment.

Khattak accused the military establishment of being behind the push for its review.

“The 18th Amendment was a great development in strengthening democracy in Pakistan,” he told RFE/RL. “But undemocratic elements, who oppose provincial autonomy, are opposing this amendment.”

He said the government was using the coronavirus outbreak as a “lame excuse” to undermine the amendment, adding that if Islamabad was serious about devising a unified strategy in fighting the disease, it could do so through parliament.

The ruling PTI party does not have the necessary two-thirds majority in both the National Assembly and Senate that it would take to repeal or change the 18th Amendment. The government has said it will consult with provincial governments and opposition political parties to review the changes.

Khattak said he feared the opposition parties had “a history of succumbing to pressure from the establishment and there is chance that they will bow before the establishment to bring changes to or repeal this amendment."

'Dangerous' Move

Pakistan's military, which has an oversized role in domestic and foreign affairs, has said it is not opposed to the 18th Amendment.

But analysts suggest the military wants to weaken it because it is affecting the military's ability to influence policy and threatens its control over national resources.

Pakistan's military has a powerful role in the country's politics.
Pakistan's military has a powerful role in the country's politics.

The army fell out with Khan’s predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, who looked to curb the military’s traditional dominance of national politics. Sharif, a three-time prime minister, was removed from office in 2017 after his disqualification by the Supreme Court.

Sharif, who was sentenced earlier this year to seven years in prison on corruption charges, has denied wrongdoing and suggested collusion between the military and courts threw him from power.

Kugelman suggested the military and the ruling party agreed on most issues, and the civilian leadership has been willing to cede policy space to the army.

“The military has a lot of momentum right now, and the PTI government -- unlike the previous government -- has served as an enabling force in the armed forces' growing policy clout,” Kugelman said.

“So, this would be an opportune time for the military, using the civilian leadership as a vehicle, to try to make a play for undermining one of Pakistan's most important and democratizing laws of recent times,” he said.

Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in an off-the-record briefing with journalists in March 2018, was quoted widely as saying that the 18th Amendment was "more dangerous than Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s six points."

Rehman was the founding father of Bangladesh, which gained independence from Pakistan after a devastating war in 1971. His "six points" were a demand for greater autonomy five years before the Bengali war of independence erupted.

The Pakistani military said Bajwa's comments were taken out of context.

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    Daud Khattak

    Daud Khattak is the managing editor of RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. He is based in Prague and reports on social, political, and security issues in Pakistan.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.