A political set-up devoid of legitimacy invites military coups. In a politically unstable country like Pakistan, when the government’s legitimacy is lost or challenged, a military coup becomes a real possibility — this is clearly exemplified by the two previous military coups. General Ziaul Haq staged the 1977 coup when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government was facing a challenge to its legitimacy, from a coalition of groups belonging to the religious right alleging rigging in the general elections. General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and his generals staged their coup when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was facing allegations of rigging in parliamentary elections. In a subsequent case of intervention by the army, Musharraf was removed from power by his subordinate generals when the street protests spearheaded by the lawyers’ community brought into focus the question of Musharraf’s legitimacy — a question as old as the regime itself.
Every regime in the post-Musharraf period has faced a challenge to its legitimacy. This includes the administration headed by Musharraf himself. On the onset, he hardly faced political resistance of any significance to his rule; nevertheless, the legal and constitutional legitimacy of his rule were seriously questioned from the very start. The Lawyers’ Movement, starting in 2007, only brought this issue of legal and constitutional legitimacy to the forefront.
Legitimacy can be defined as a public perception that a ruler or a government has the right and authority to govern the country — politically, legally and morally. Losing legitimacy means a situation where the government or the ruler becomes devoid, in public perception, of the right to rule the country on account of any illegality or corruption.
The Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government was elected through a democratic electoral process which was legally, politically and morally legitimate. Nevertheless, a situation was created where the PPP was forced, through a campaign of media trials and succession of court judgments, to face allegations of financial corruption of its leaders and the situation escalated to created a sense of mistrust in the government.
The Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) government came into power in 2013 in an atmosphere where allegations of corruption were a constant. Something new and more powerful was required, and came when the leading opposition party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), pushed for rolling back the whole political system on the basis of alleged rigging in the 2013 election. The protests that brought these allegations into the limelight came and went away, with the Sharif government surviving the onslaught. However, the protests left lingering doubts in the public imagination about the credibility of parliamentary elections. These doubts could be left to hibernate, while the power struggle continued in the corridors of power in Islamabad, and revived at an appropriate time to act as the Sword of Damocles over the political system.
The Pakistani people have passively witnessed similar developments unfold so often in the past that they can make educated guesses regarding what the next act will entail, and who the main actors will be. The actors are constant: political parties of the religious right spearheading campaigns to raise the legitimacy question, the recently mobilised retired generals and ex-servicemen similarly advancing this campaign, and the media acting as another proxy in this game played out by not-so-hidden hands.
A regime change is not the only objective pursued; sometimes forcing the incumbent government to change the unpalatable policy becomes the intended objective. Prime Minister Sharif, for example, came into power promising to normalise relations with India. Immediately before coming into power he appeared so soft on India that he even suggested close cultural affinity between the two neighbouring countries become the basis of a close friendship. In the first year of his rule, he remained determined to pursue his policy of friendly relations with India. But all this changed as the government seemed to reel under the pressure of PTI's dharna. As tension in Islamabad peaked in the first week of September 2014, Sharif went to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and delivered a hard-hitting speech against India, mentioning the word Kashmir more often than he mentioned the word Pakistan.
Zardari was even more vulnerable: after his alleged corruption scandals became the source of trouble for his government, he was forced to completely abdicate his control over the foreign policy-making process. Military governments are not completely immune to this treacherous environment in Islamabad either. After Musharraf’s legitimacy came into question in the wake of the Lawyers’ Movement, he was completely cut off from his military commanders and increasingly became dependent on Pakistani intelligence services.
The reason why Pakistani rulers’ legitimacy is brought into question so easily is that none of the governments in the country—with the exception of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government—have been broad-based. They start with a narrow base, leaving the field open for people for whom treachery is a job requirement, to woo the alienated section of society, and turn them against the government.
If the legitimacy of governments can be brought into question so easily, then why has there been no coup since October 1999, even though two civilian governments — under Zardari and Sharif — since then have faced serious challenges? The answer has to do with the privileged position that the army enjoys in this political set-up, which came into being as a result of the parliamentary elections in 2008. This political system has acted as a shock absorber for the army against the shocks coming from outside and within the country.
After eight suicide attacks against military installations in Rawalpindi, in the wake of the July 2007 Lal Masjid operation and after an avalanche of criticisms coming from the West, accusing the army and its intelligence agencies of playing a double game in dealing with militant groups and the Taliban, the army generals seemed to have realised that democracy is best suited to meet their requirements. I had the privilege of meeting one of these gentlemen in Rawalpindi in those days, and I vividly recall one of his quotes on the situation: “Democracy has become a security imperative”. I believe democracy is still a security imperative, but apparently they see no harm in manipulating this same democracy to serve their own interests.
Disturbingly, a parallel process of challenging the legitimacy of the state is underway in Pakistan. While this process may be as old as the state itself, this time the legitimacy of the state has been brought into question by forces which are armed to the teeth. It is not the strength of the political system that is keeping away the manipulative army generals from staging a coup again, it is the fact that the army generals don’t see the iron hand of the state machinery as sufficient to keep the state intact. They need democracy as a safety valve and additional glue to keep the state together. However, whether democracy will continue to remain a security imperative is difficult to predict.