The dilemmas of a coup

One would think that in a world where dictatorships are being toppled one after the other, a military coup is the last thing a nation needs. But a coup is what took place in Pakistan last Oct. 12.  And what a coup it has been.

The public welcomed it almost with a sigh of relief.  The military placed the incompetent prime minister and his corrupt brother under arrest, but in the two days following the takeover, no martial law was proclaimed, the constitution remained in force, and everything was normal.  Reluctance to rule appeared to sum up the coup leaders’ attitude.  Instead of taking power, they met with civilian leaders and urged them to put up a government.

The negotiations with the politicians broke down.  Although the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, did not mind the ouster of its leader, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, it insisted on its right to name his successor.  But if the fiction of a civilian government was to be maintained, the constitution would have to be respected.  There was nothing in the constitution that would give legal cover to the acts of the coup plotters.  The week before, Nawaz had dismissed Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the coup leader.  Under the law, all the subsequent actions of the general leading to the coup would be illegal.

A coup is a purely political act; it invents its own law.  This would be so in a country like Pakistan where military coups determined political succession for a great part of its history.  Pakistan became a republic in 1956.  Two years later, the constitution was abolished and power was given to Gen. Ayub Khan.  Ayub ruled as a dictator for 11 years. In 1969, the commander-in-chief, Gen. Yahya Khan seized power and imposed martial law.  Four years later, he too was forced to step down, following a civil war that led to Bangladeshi independence. From 1973 to 1977, Pakistan enjoyed civilian rule upon the election of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father.  But an election dispute led to Bhutto’s ouster in 1977 and his execution in 1978.  Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who took power, ruled until 1985, when the country once more reverted to civilian rule.  And now this coup in 1999.

Fourteen years is not a long time to stabilize the civilian institutions of a country with a long military tradition.  But Gen. Musharraf’s reluctance to declare martial law and suspend the constitution signifies the dilemmas of military rule in the modern world.

Increasingly, the world prefers to deal with nations governed by civilian leaders, that have clear rules of succession and credible  institutions. The social and economic problems of nations have also become too complex to be solved by simple reliance on control of coercive power. Not too long ago, the military rulers of Argentina, Brazil and Chile gave up power when the economic crises they faced became the single most formidable challenge to their right to govern.

Yet, interestingly, coups have not completely gone out of fashion.  The military in many countries continue to think of themselves as the ultimate trustees of the nation, morally obliged to protect the people not only against foreign invaders but also against corrupt and incompetent local tyrants.  In his first statement to the nation, the Pakistani coup leader denounced the civilian leadership of Nawaz Sharif in these words:  “Not only have all the institutions been played around with, and systematically destroyed, the economy too is in a state of collapse.  Despite my advice, they tried to interfere with the armed forces, the last remaining viable institution in which all of you take so much pride, and to which you look up for the stability, unity, and integrity of the country.”

In barely two years since his election as prime minister, Nawaz had squandered the 40% political base that his party enjoyed when it came to power in 1997.  Wanting to court the IMF and the World Bank, he tried to enforce structural adjustment measures that only worsened his people’s economic woes.  He attempted to raise taxes, but retreated in the face of massive demonstrations.  He tinkered with the constitution and removed the last remaining protection of trade unions, the poor and the minorities.  Charges of extensive corruption hounded his administration.  The withdrawal from the disputed areas of Kashmir, the point of conflict with India, compounded the demoralization of the Pakistani nation.

A populist with no regard for the subtleties of statecraft, Nawaz humiliated the bureaucracy and brought it under his full control. According to a report, he tried to impose a Mogul-style of governance in which “his words must be translated into actions within seconds. He introduced a telephone help-line on TV where he would listen to any complaint, and then after one minute he would take action.  The TV then follows the story and the impression given is that justice has been done in seconds.”

In the last few days, demonstrations exploded in Karachi in opposition to martial rule, but no one has lamented the overthrow and arrest of Nawaz.  The latest is that Gen. Musharraf has finally opted to declare martial law, suspend the constitution, form an interim government under his control, and hopefully hold elections after two years.  The Pakistanis know that military rule is not the answer to the problems of modern Pakistan.  The generals too are fearful of international opinion, and would rather leave governing to civilians.

But as elsewhere in the world, the greatest danger to civilian rule is no longer military ambition but the corruption and unfitness of civilian leaders.


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