The chances of martial law in Pakistan


By Dr Ejaz Hussain

In recent weeks, interesting but competing statements by the PML-N, the army, the opposition and the public on the (im)possibility of martial law consumed much of the prime time. The N-league led by Maryam Nawaz was and is going confrontational vis-à-vis the judiciary and, indirectly, the army. Indeed, the day after Shahbaz Sharif and his son appeared on local media, Nawaz family was indicted by the National Accountability Court, thus, providing further fodder to Maryam and his father to make fun of the ongoing trial.

The supporters of Maryam and Nawaz Sharif are hinting at martial law. They argue that the entire Panama story and the subsequent trial is a pretext to take over. The army on its part categorically rejected rumours related to martial law or formation of a technocrat government. The opposition too believes the PML-N is pushing the army to strike. The public, however, is divided. Some see elections to be held in time; others are skeptical refer to controversial census results which ought to be rectified to hold next elections; few are predicting another martial law. Will there be another military takeover in the months to come? Can martial law be prevented with no-martial law-statements by ISPR? What does Pakistan’s political and military history inform us? Will Maryam and his father have any political future?

To address the foregoing, one must never forget the fact that Pakistan had experienced five martial laws (1958, 1969, 1977, 1999, and 2007) where elected governments were toppled, Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) replaced the Constitution, and military courts replaced normal courts. Moreover, in the 1950s (before formal take over), 1990s and 2008-present, the army was able to hold its ground institutionally, socioeconomically and politically. In addition, the majority of Pakistan’s politicians are either a product of the army or allied with it for rational reasons. Nawaz Sharif is one such case. The latter never learnt from his past and replicated what he did with the army top brass in the 1990s. No doubt, an elected prime minister and the government have the constitutional and moral prerogative to oversight the non-elective institutions.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of ruptured civil-military relations of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s policy, for instance, regarding internal matters of the military and India, which is still ranked as the top enemy by the army, was counterproductive. He, thus, lost the trust of the powerful institution and is now in self-exile in London. His daughter, however, is still in the county and, interestingly, adamant to lead the party and probably the country.

Maryam, however, is not likely to get what she wants. In order to survive politically, electorally and financially, she will have to reconcile with the other side of the family which, according to media reports, has already reconciled with the army. If this materialises in the months to come, the Sharif family can possibly have a face saving and the party can live for another day. In this case, election can be held in time on the basis either of new or old census. In such a scenario, the PML-N would be able to achieve a majority in the Senate by March next year and win considerable seats in the National Assembly. However, if the Nawaz family does not act so and keeps on confronting judges and the generals, as they did attack the top army brass religiously, the latter then has the capacity to get the Sharifs grilled judicially and socially, with the possibility to strike down the hurriedly passed law that enabled Nawaz to lead the party after having been disqualified by the apex court.

Moreover, in a confrontational scenario, there is a strong likelihood of elections being postponed owing to contested census results and the country’s Supreme Court can intervene to provide a year or so to rectify results. In the meanwhile, a national, not purely technocrat, government comprising of all major political parties may be formed in lieu of interim government to run the country. Moreover, the Sharif family in particular will be further dragged in cases and within year or so, their popularity will be neutralised by co-opting Shahbaz side of the family or creating factions within the PML-N.

In another scenario, however, if the whole Sharif family including Shahbaz Sharif side takes on the army legally and institutionally, the latter can react beyond the Sharifs’ imagination. The Pakistani military still keeps its agency (make things happen) intact and can stage coup and impose martial law in order to guard itself. Noticeably, to legitimise martial law in the past, four factors were highlighted: weak democracy, poor governance, external threat and weaker economy. In applied terms from the military’s perspective, Pakistani democracy is aristocracy; the civilians are poor at governing, that’s why they call the Rangers and the army. India, Afghanistan and now the US is hovering over Pakistan; and the economy is not doing well, the army chief reminded us. This means if and when martial law is imposed, these four factors get a repeated mention. Importantly, the judiciary and anti-PML-N parties especially PTI, PPP and JI will only be interested to see the back of their rivals, the Sharifs. The latter is not a cadre based party and is prone to factionalism. Moreover, there is a qualitative difference between social media based fans and mass following. The PML-N lacks the latter and without it, it cannot build consensus and put a popular resistance against the powers that be.

In a nutshell, in the coming months, it is the PML-N that will either reconcile or lose. If it confronts the army in particular and the judiciary in general, the party will be over. We would then be discussing pros and cons of martial law regime. Martial laws happened in Pakistan in the past due purely to domestic variables. Thus, it will be futile an exercise to count on external elements.

(The writer is Head, Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University, Islamabad. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright Fellow. He tweets @ejazbhatty)