A year after May 9 protests in Pakistan: A turning point in civil-military relations?

Why are the May 9 protests, which occurred in 2023, an important event with implications for civil-military relations in Pakistan?
Even though the military remains the final arbiter in Pakistan to determine the course of politics, the May 9 protests have made it more difficult and challenging than ever for it to manage the guided democracy. The anguish and sentiment of people against the instrumental role of the military have raised questions about its legitimacy.

The recent conference held by DG-ISPR included the agenda of reiterating the fact to PTI to apologise to primarily military and the nation for a comeback in the politics of Pakistan. Among a list of agendas, the prime was the PTI challenge in the conference to construct a narrative of PTI as an anarchical, foreign sources driven and anti-national force in Pakistan. In response, the PTI spokesperson Raoof Hassan has called it “full of contradictions, devoid of rationale”. These efforts to reestablish the military image go back to the power tussle between PTI chief Imran Khan and the military leadership in Pakistan.

It was May 9, last year, in 2023, when the Corps Commander’s house in Lahore was attacked by PTI supporters protesting in response to the arrest of Imran Khan under suspicious conditions. A majority share the consensus that PTI chief Imran Khan was framed for corruption and arrested for receiving land worth millions from a business tycoon, Malik Riaz Hussain.

The protestors, in the face of ‘PTI supporters, ’ targeted the house of the Corps Commander in Lahore, also representing a section of Pakistani society. This one-of-its-kind phenomenon has been a rare occurrence in Pakistan’s recent history.

The incident brings back to the focus the issue concerning civil-military relations, which ultimately turns out to be the epicentre of every major turn of events in Pakistan. The protests from last year carried more than one meaning for various stakeholders. Most significantly, it has implications for the army and civilian leadership as separate institutions but embedded together in the peculiar political arrangement of Pakistan.

The conventional wisdom suggests that civil-military relations are not just about the debate about autonomy and control in the interaction between civilian and military agencies but also catering to the well-being and legitimate demands of the people, which provide legitimacy to both of these institutions.The recent conference held by ISPR Though the Pak military might have been the facilitator to ensure that they could bring a major crackdown on people and PTI, it has also brought consequences for the institution’s image and legitimacy among the masses.History of Military intervention in the democracy of Pakistan
Since the early days of independence, Pakistan’s army has been taking charge of civilian affairs in the country. The intervention is evident as no single government has completed its political term in Pakistan. The first episode was orchestrated by General Ayub Khan in 1958, and he ruled the country till 1969, handing over the command of power to General Yahya Khan as the successor. But with a total defeat against India in the 1971 war, leading to the bifurcation of Pakistan and the creation of a new state named Bangladesh, it came as a watershed moment for the military in its history. Another episode of the military takeover came in 1977 when General Zia Ul Haq dissolved the parliament, placing Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto under house arrest. Later, General Zia resigned in 1985, appointing Muhammad Khan Junejo as the prime minister while continuing as President till his death in 1988.

The third military coup episode occurred in 1999, with General Pervez Musharraf ousting Nawaz Sharif from the position of power and justifying his actions to pursue the national interest to save the country by establishing a ‘real democracy’, rejecting the mandate of corrupt and self-serving politicians in Pakistan.

The question at the forefront is why the military had to step in and intervene in every case. The answer lies in the weak institutional roots within Pakistan, which were weakened by the military itself to a large extent to ensure its primacy in state affairs.

Today, the military runs an ad-hoc model of governance where it controls and determines whose party and leadership will govern the country and ensures it holds the string of those ruling politicians in its own hands. Scholars like Aqil Shah have called it a model of ‘guided democracy’, highlighting the civil-military equation in Pakistan. The framework ensures a formal democratic structure maintained and legitimised by elections, but the military establishment takes a final call on who acquires the seat of power. The military’s involvement is evident at the structural level in how it controls the country’s political economy and cases of immense corruption and power-grabbing within the polity.

The ongoing tussle between PTI and the Military after the detention of Imran Khan
Pakistan is known for its guided democracy and the fact that no government has been able to complete its term in power since independence. The reason for this state can be attributed to the inability of the military to bear relatively autonomous, vocal and more popular leaders at the apex level running the state of affairs in Pakistan. The same case of continuity is being reiterated with the Imran Khan-led regime and PTI questioning the primacy of the military in the politics of Pakistan.

There have been past evident cases of rage against the Pakistani military in regions like Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but the act of vandalisation of the Corps commander’s house in Lahore, the mob attack on the Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi and the attack on the ISI building. are wake-up calls for the establishment to mend its ways to conduct its supremacy in Pakistan.

There are reports and misinformation about whether the protests were orchestrated by Imran himself. However, what is more important here is the intensity of the protests and the symbolism evident in the targets the protests chose and the nature of the establishment’s repression of these events. The arrest of more than 4000 supporters and key PTI leaders came in response to the protests from the establishment. However, according to a report by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (PILDAT), the law enforcement agencies either withdrew cases or stopped pursuing those who were involved in protests but later resigned from PTI party posts.

To date, PTI’s Imran Khan is in detention, and the anniversary of his arrest, which also brought heavy criticism of the military from the masses and PTI supporters, has questioned the legitimacy of the institution wherein it is not a protector but a manipulator of the constitution and democratic procedures.

The arrest of a political leader who has gained a mass support base resulted in the mass mobilisation against the military in the May 9 protests last year. Even the retired military officials have criticised the establishment for turning against Imran Khan in this coercive manner. However, the establishment is consistent with its stance to be stringent towards the May 9 protests, labelling it as an attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. On the other hand, Imran Khan has refused to budge from the establishment’s pressure tactics and refused to apologise for the protests in response to his arrest.

Implications of the protests and the ‘people’ challenge for the establishment
Pakistan’s military has been alleged to be instrumental in using the May 9 incident to reassert its centrality in Pakistan politics, which has also forced it to function within the garb of a civilian framework, i.e. to run the show within the guided democracy framework. However, the framework has seen a setback with the May 9 protests. The question remains: How will the establishment adapt to the challenge of Imran Khan, PTI supporters, and the people of Pakistan who have questioned the role and involvement of the military in Pakistan in some way or another? PTI and Imran Khan have been, to a large extent, successful in convincing the establishment to be involved in targeting his position in polity and his party as a voice against the ills in military-guided Pakistan. The recent involvement of the establishment in manipulating the elections and democratic processes through the involvement of other state agencies and institutions brings the establishment in a bad light among the people of Pakistan. The mass protests in the mainland areas of Pakistan have sown the seeds to create a space for a grassroots movement against the impartial and guided democratic rule in Pakistan. The true idea of democracy in Pakistan will be enforced in the military-guided system when the protests and questions will be asked not from the marginalised peripheries and communities but from the core of Pakistan led by the majority of the masses.

About the author: Rahul Rawat is a PhD candidate at the Diplomacy and Disarmament division, School of International Studies, JNU.

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