Politics and longevity

In Pakistan, no one is tolerated for decades - at least not in power.

Arifa Noor
ROBERT Mugabe, who died recently, stayed in power in Zimbabwe for decades after the country gained independence — as president and prime minister. One of his obituaries stated that he believed that Zimbabwe was his to govern until the end. In a speech before the African Union in 2016, he said he would remain at the helm “until God says, ‘Come’.” He was finally removed in what was said to not be a coup!

Mugabe’s longevity is not unusual in developing countries. Saddam Hussein ruled from 1979 to 2003, while Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has been president of Uganda since 1986. Bashar al-Assad has ruled Syria since 2000, when he took over from his father who ruled from 1971 to 2000. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak lasted from 1981 to 2011.

The examples can go on for the length of this column perhaps (and save one the hassle of writing), but the point to be made here is that Pakistan’s name would not appear on a list of states headed by strongmen who have stayed (or continue to be) in power for such periods.

Here, unfortunately, our civilian rulers — primarily the prime ministers — have rarely lasted an ent­ire term, including in the post-2008 period, where governments have managed to touch the five-year goal post (only to collapse in the next election). No one is tolerated for decades — at least not in power.

In Pakistan, no one is tolerated for decades — at least not in power.

Liaquat Ali Khan, Yousuf Raza Gilani and Nawaz Sharif have lasted longer than most of their counterparts — over four years each. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto cannot technically be counted among them as he remained president from 1971 till 1973, when the new Constitution came into being and he assumed the post of prime minister. Perhaps one can say that in the post-2008 era, at least two of the inhabitants of Prime Minister House have managed to stay on long enough.

The short stays of civilian leaders and the reasons behind it have been discussed often enough, but interestingly, while Pakistani military dictators manage to hang on to power longer than their civilian counterparts, they do not have a very ‘impressive’ record when compared to the rest of the world.

Ziaul Haq clung on to power for 11 years while Pervez Musharraf stayed on for eight. And rarely have they ‘won’ more than one general election. Contrast this with Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir who came to power in Sudan in 1989, when he led a military coup that ousted a democratic government. Since then, he has won three presidential elections.

This is perhaps due to the state itself. It is not structured in a manner to be dominated by individuals for too long. For example, be it Ayub, Zia or Musharraf, each one of them had to eventually hold elections — at the local level or national — which meant sharing power with the elected politicians. This is not a step any of them was able to hold off for very long.

In fact, soon after the 1999 coup, a constituency politician from Punjab commented confidently in a private conversation that sooner rather than later, Musharraf too would have to hold elections. According to him, the politicians were aware of it and were waiting for the moment. In retrospect, his quiet confidence may not seem striking, but it was not then seen as a prophecy which would come true soon. But it did — two years after taking over, Musharraf held local government elections and many a senior politician participated in it.

In addition, the election itself proves the relative lack of control. The dictator is not able to manipulate the results completely or control parliament entirely. Musharraf could barely pull off a simple majority for ‘his party’ while the 1985 assembly was hardly very pliant to Zia; and there was more in the assembly’s show of independence than just Mohammad Khan Junejo.

Power sharing is more than just political; for the politicians are interested in state resources and state patronage, and the dictator has no choice but to barter with them.

A second reason for the dictator’s eventual departure before too long is the military itself. Weariness sets in — it is inevitable whether the man in charge is clad in uniform or sherwani — partly because over time his agenda proves to be little different from those who are electable and partly because the economy begins to falter. This is where the institution begins to see the man as a liability because his political dirt begins to stick to the former (the only time we hear the stories of military men being discouraged from wearing their uniform in public is during their direct intervention in politics).

Shortly after this, the one-man rule crumbles, followed by elections and ‘civilian rule’. The regimes of Ayub and Musharraf were weakened by lengthy protests which were not discouraged by the institution they were heading.

Zia may have passed away in an air crash, but as soon as his successors took over, they reversed his policy by announcing elections, something most agree he would not have done. In parallel, the institution also begins to distance itself from the former strongman, sending out the message that many of his decisions were his alone.

It is perhaps this frequent withdrawal from direct intervention that has ensured that the military’s institutional structure does not become too politicised. And before the brickbats head my way, do consider that this is one of the few militaries in the developing world where no coup from within the ranks has ever succeeded. Neither has any of its long-enduring chiefs ever meddled much with the institution.

For contrast, consider that Saddam Hussein created forces within the army to ensure his own safety. The Special Republican Guard was led by his son and recruited from tribes allied with him. And the resources allocated to these special forces demoralised the rest of the army.

Such decisions — based on individual interests — are unheard of in the Pakistan Army.

The military dictators may last around a decade, but once out of uniform, they disappear into oblivion. In contrast, the civilian leaders — despite being unceremoniously removed from the prime minister’s house — tend to dominate the political scene for far longer than their stints in power. Perhaps, it is only an institution that casts a longer shadow than them.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2019

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