Special Commentary

Pakistan: Whither ‘Hybrid’ Governance?

24 Apr, 2022    ·   5813

Rana Banerji writes that the process of selecting ‘hybrid’ civilian facades has seen a historic role reversal in Pakistan

Rana Banerji
Rana Banerji
Distinguished Fellow

Even by Pakistan’s unpredictable standards, the tumultuous events of the past few weeks, beginning with the tabling of a vote of no confidence against a sitting prime minister on 8 March, bewildered the nation and shocked the sensible sections of its civil society. A civilian politician, who came to power through a ‘hybrid’ or carefully selected mechanism implemented by the military establishment during the 2018 polls, resorted to blatantly unconstitutional steps to hang on to power, rather in the manner of a military dictator. It remained for an alert judiciary to prevent further abrogation of the democratic process. The army too refrained from intervening despite deliberate provocation from its erstwhile protégé.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had emerged as a charismatic politician in 2013, albeit with support from benefactors in the military establishment. The urban youth, middle class, and women formed the core of his political base. Fed up with corrupt politicians, they were much enthused by his message of setting up a “Naya Pakistan,” inspired by a reformist social agenda of providing equitable economic development (as in Prophet Muhammed’s ‘Medina’). However, in the three plus years that he was at the helm, Imran failed badly at passing the test of good governance. His entire tenure remained focused on seeking accountability from his political opponents. The economy descended downhill. The prices of flour, sugar, and petrol skyrocketed. Electricity charges spiralled. The rupee fell against the dollar, to stand at a hitherto unprecedented low of 183. Imran’s arrogance offended his own party and allies. He surrounded himself with equally inexperienced, sycophantic, and upstart advisers, with no political or administrative acumen. Towards the end, Imran displayed strong narcissistic tendencies—even megalomania—by taking strange decisions, violating the 1973 Constitution with impunity, and brazenly taking home or selling abroad valuable gifts from the State toshakhana (treasury).

The collapse of this military-backed dispensation became inevitable when Imran insisted on Lt Gen Faiz Hamid's retention as the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) chief in October-November 2021, stonewalling Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa's appointment of Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum in his place. Imran was tempting fate by wanting to hold on to Faiz, who had proved useful to his party while the army was destabilising the Nawaz Sharif government in 2017-2018. No prime minister in Pakistan's recent history has survived long in office after appointing or holding on to an ISI chief who did not retain the army chief's confidence. Imran was to be no exception.

Public opprobrium over Imran Khan’s mis-governance was focused against the army for having brought in an incompetent ‘selected’ civilian façade. The army leadership became aware of this prevailing mood. As soon as the military establishment's 'neutrality' became clear, the Opposition parties got their act together under the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) umbrella, working out options for Imran’s ouster through a vote of no confidence. Shehbaz Sharif was promoted as the 'acceptable' prime ministerial face before the military establishment. Soon, other allies of the ruling coalition (MQM, Baloch parties, others) signalled their willingness to join the emerging bandwagon.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history, a sitting PM faced imminent ouster through a vote of no confidence. The claimed number of members of the national assembly (MNAs) with the Opposition comfortably exceeded the required 172 votes, possibly nearing 200. On 3 April, when the delayed no confidence vote was finally taken up in the National Assembly (NA), Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri ruled it illegal under Article 5 of the 1973 Constitution, on flimsy grounds of the Opposition being in cahoots with ‘foreign powers’ to overthrow the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. Shortly after the NA was prorogued on 3 April, Imran Khan advised President Arif Alvi to dissolve the NA under Article 58 and order fresh elections, which the latter promptly rubber-stamped.

The canard of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ was dug up in a desperate act by Imran Khan in a public meeting on 27 March. Addressing the nation on 31 March, Imran tried to make much of this threat, accusing America in a feigned slip of tongue of wanting to oust him. On 7 April, in a historic and unanimous 5-0 verdict, the Supreme Court (SC) set aside the deputy speaker’s ruling against the no confidence motion, the PM’s advice to the president, and the latter’s action to dissolve the NA, holding these acts as “contrary to the Constitution and the law, and of no legal effect.” Once a vote of no confidence had been tabled legally under Article 95 of the Constitution, it had to be voted through. In so ruling, the SC discarded the ‘doctrine of necessity’ by not acceding to the demand for general elections.

High drama ensued after the no confidence vote in the NA on 9 April, with the debate dragging on late into the night. A last minute cabinet meeting was held, fuelling rumours about possible dismissal orders against the Gen Bajwa. BBC Urdu reported a mysterious helicopter visit to the PM’s residence with two senior military officials. The SC and Islamabad High Court opened at night and prisoner vans appeared outside the NA, warning of possible contempt action against the Speaker and recalcitrant PTI MNAs. These developments had a sobering effect. The vote of no confidence was ultimately carried by 174 votes, with the bulk of ruling party MNAs not participating.

After his unceremonious ouster, Imran Khan began holding mass rallies—in Peshawar, Karachi, and Lahore—ranting on about his victimhood and external conspiracy. He forced reluctant PTI members to resign en masse from the NA, hoping this strategy would help build a populist revival for his party’s fortunes. He has obliquely hinted that senior personalities in the army, and not the institution itself, are to blame.

In the last fortnight, pro-PTI trolls on social media intensified personal attacks against Gen Bajwa and even the Chief Justice. Several fake video and audio tapes critical of Gen Bajwa, authored ostensibly by senior retired army officers, emerged. Former Army Chief Gen Aslam Beg retracted his alleged accusations. Other reports about Imran’s attempts to divide the senior army leadership surfaced. A retired Army Major, Adil Raja, who headed an ex-servicemen’s WhatsApp group, escaped abroad to avoid censure.

The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) was forced to declare on 14 April that Gen Bajwa was not interested in a further extension of tenure and would retire in time, on 29 November 2022. Bajwa himself, during a visit to the Lahore garrison on 17 April, went out of his way to meet serving and retired servicemen to explain how the army’s honeymoon with Imran had soured over the past three years.

In the recent past, the army’s failure in imposing different ‘hybrid’ models has been increasingly questioned by discerning critics in Pakistan’s civil society. Advocate Babar Sattar questioned in October 2020: “Do we wish to entrench and legitimize this hybrid model as our de jure system of governance? Or are we still justifying the hybrid model on grounds of necessity?” Sattar further identified the three types of the so-called ‘hybrid model’: the ‘back-to-barracks mode’ (which never happened), ‘the pulling-strings-from-behind-the-curtain mode’, (where the army controlled only key decisions and left day-to-day governance to an elected civilian regime), and ‘the selector or umpire mode’, (where the army is repeatedly called upon to act as an arbiter in overseeing power distribution between political actors or resolve conflicts between institutions).

Castigating the army leadership in no uncertain terms, outspoken former Pakistani police officer, Tariq Khosa observed in May 2021 that “The military draws a clear distinction between the defenders of state—the embodiment of the national interests—as opposed to those who are perceived as defenders of special interests, like the leadership of political parties, feudal barons and business tycoons.” He also criticised the extension given to Gen Bajwa as a failed panacea that hoped to “attain stability of tenure and promote the mantra of civilian and military on the same page…Both may be on the same page but [are] reading different books.”

The crisis in Pakistan has evolved in a fundamentally different manner this time. The process of selecting ‘hybrid’ civilian facades has seen a historic role reversal, where the army’s failures are brought home to them in no uncertain manner—and not just through social media trolls supporting temporarily popular civilian politicians. It has forced the army itself to re-think such efforts, especially as their own protege has tried to sow seeds of division within the institution and senior echelons of collegiate leadership between generals.

Though the army pays lip service to the concept of democracy and promises no future martial law in Pakistan, the question that looms before Pakistan’s highly polarised civil society is: How long is it prepared to cynically tolerate current practices of governance under such ‘hybrid’ constructs? Will ‘hybrid governance’ collapse under its own weight in the future? All portends are that we may not get an early answer to these questions. The army will keep going back to the drawing board to evolve a façade that lets them keep control of security and foreign policies as the country’s guardian institution—forever.


Rana Banerji is Member of the IPCS Governing Council and former Special Secretary at the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.