Pakistanis are commemorating the 21st anniversary of a bloodless military coup that toppled an elected government and which is blamed for plunging the country into a political and security crisis from which its 220 million people are still reeling.
On October 12, 1999, army chief General Pervez Musharraf landed in Pakistan from a trip abroad to lead a military regime after fellow generals had already successfully overthrown Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government after he attempted to appoint Musharraf’s replacement.
“Your armed forces have never, and shall never, let you down,” Musharraf told Pakistanis in a televised address late that night. “We shall preserve the integrity and sovereignty of our country to the last drop of our blood,” he added. “I request you all to remain calm and support your armed forces in the reestablishment of order to pave the way for a prosperous future for Pakistan.”
But more than two decades years later, an orderly, prosperous future remains a dream as Islamabad grapples with another political crisis. Reeling from a sharp economic downturn, the country is now bracing for more political instability as opposition leaders seek to bring an end to the military’s political role through protests and political agitation.
The opposition wants to end the military’s stranglehold over power and end the legacy of Musharraf and three successive generals who directly ruled the 73-year-old country for more than 30 years. Politicians see the military’s domination of politics and civilian institutions as a permanent constant and the main hurdle in nurturing democracy and prosperity in the South Asian nation. Pakistan’s current government and the military consider corruption by civilian politicians to be their country’s number one problem.
Sharif, the three-time former prime minister and leader of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), the largest opposition party in the federal parliament, seems convinced that his country’s future is linked to establishing civilian control in a parliamentary democracy. He is a key figure in stabilizing the Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM), an alliance of nearly a dozen opposition groups whose agenda is to end the military’s interference in politics.
“Treasonists captured PM House Islamabad, 12 Oct 1999, to arrest an elected Prime Minister,” he tweeted of Musharraf’s coup. “Had Quaid-e-Azam’s directions at Staff College Quetta in 1948 been followed, we would have neither lost East Pakistan nor suffered military takeovers,” he added, alluding to a famous speech by Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah, often known by his title Quaid-e Azam or great leader. “Do not forget that the armed forces are the servants of the people,” Jinnah told the Pakistani Army’s top brass in June 1948. “You do not make national policy; it is we, the civilians, who decide these issues, and it is your duty to carry out these tasks with which you are entrusted.”
Sharif pushed for Musharraf to be tried for treason. Last year, a court established during his third stint in office in 2013 sentenced the former army chief to a death sentence. But in January this year, a provincial high court overturned the decision and even dissolved the special court that had convicted Musharraf.
Perhaps such grievances led Sharif to mention Bangladesh. Politicians from minority ethnic groups often invoke the separation of East Pakistan in December 1971 as the new country Bangladesh. But politicians such as Sharif from among the Punjabis, the majority ethnic group, are generally not keen on highlighting the dark chapter in their country’s history when a majority ethnic group succeeded from a minority, which went on to dominate the country’s civil and military bureaucracy.
Most historians agree that Bangladesh emerged after military dictator Yahya Khan ordered a military operation against the region’s majority party. Awami League won a landslide majority in East Pakistan the parliamentary election in December 1970 and had achieved the requisite majority for forming a national government. But instead of handing over power, Khan ordered a military operation in March 1971. An ensuing brief and bloody war against archrival India and Bengali rebels ended with Islamabad’s defeat in December 1971.
But General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s current army chief, says his nuclear-armed country is secure today and the military is committed to its role.
“Our actions are guided by the constitution and the national interest of Pakistan,” he told graduating young army officers on October 10. “We continue to support the government whenever asked to, as per the law and guidelines of the constitution,” he added. “Our strength is our strong bond with our people, constitution of our country, democracy, and the democratic values that our people follow, and therefore we shall defend this bond and our democratic values to the hilt.”
Opposition politicians, however, accuse Bajwa of rigging the July 2018 election in favor of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party. In a recent speech, Khan appeared to have inadvertently confirmed the opposition’s criticism by attempting to explain why the opposition is critical of the military’s support for his administration. On October 9, he told supporters that the opposition’s real problem with the military was that they were not able to control it.
"I want to ask those who are criticizing the Pakistani Army why I do not have a problem with the Pakistani Army,” Khan said, “those who are criticizing the army because they want to control all the institutions whose job it is to keep checks and balances, except one,” he added. “They know the ISI is aware of all their theft,” he said of the country’s premier Inter-Service Intelligence agency, which is nominally controlled by the prime minister but most of its leadership comes from the military ranks. “They try to control it [the ISI] and that's where the conflict starts," he noted. “This is why Nawaz Sharif eventually ends up fighting every army chief.”
But Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a PML-N leader and former prime minister, says the ISI’s mandate is limited to intelligence and counterintelligence.
“If the prime minister is saying that it is running the internal affairs of the country, then we should debate its role,” he told private Geo TV.
In a sign that the opposition campaign is exerting some pressure, former Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa resigned from his post as the Khan’s main media adviser. The opposition has been calling for his resignation after an expose in August uncovered his family’s vast wealth, which grew exponentially with his rise in the army ranks during the past two decades. Bajwa still clings to his role as the head of a government regulator overseeing multibillion-dollar Chinese investments in the country.
The PDM plans to hold its first major protest gathering in a PML-N stronghold later this week. Observers are keenly watching whether the protest will attract massive public support or if Khan’s administration will succeed at keeping the event low-profile. The October 16 protest might prove a bellwether of things to come this autumn and winter in Pakistan.