Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 12, 2022 Updated 18 Days ago
The interrelationship between the troika—president, prime minister and the army chief—impairs Pakistan’s political system
Epaulettes and suits: Can Pakistan’s new army chief reorient its political character? The question of who is to serve as Pakistan’s new army chief is now settled. However, this leads to new questions:  how shall Lt Gen Asim Munir as Head of Pakistan’s most powerful institution grapple with the myriad civil-military issues plaguing the Pakistani state? His predecessor, especially in the waning months of his tenure, proclaimed that the Pakistan Army’s history of interfering in politics had done more harm than good and that the force would categorically remain out of politics, henceforth, but that seems easier said than done. It is true that the Pakistani state did witness unprecedented events during this year—a sitting prime minister was removed through a successful no-confidence vote for the first time and the ousted PM’s political manoeuvrings forced the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence to hold a public press conference, defending its non-political stance. However, at the same time, Pakistan’s President has been publicly undermining the incumbent Prime Minister and the constitutional system by repeatedly ‘consulting’ former PM Imran Khan on key political issues, especially when it came to the matter of the Army Chief’s appointment. Thus, the question that arises is—can Asim Munir succeed in fulfilling Bajwa’s promise, should he wish to? He cannot; not alone at least. This is principally due to the fact that Pakistan’s political character is distinct from its political system. But is this distinction justified as an analytical frame, especially for Pakistan’s polity? This could be further elaborated:
  1. The political system of a state is defined through its formal institutional mechanisms—constitutional and statutory. These mechanisms are ideally designed as conduits for the flow of power and legitimate authority, which lends to individuals holding any office, a defined and limited mandate.
  2. The political character of a state is discerned from the channels through which power actually flows, circumventing constitutional and statutory formalities in effect but paying deference to them cosmetically. This results in informal, personal, (and organisational) agencies which benefit from the state’s legitimacy but supplant the political authority flowing from it, leading to undefined and unlimited mandates.

The Troika

Pakistan’s political system, throughout its history, has evinced an ability to make its constitutional mechanisms work but eventually unravelling to reveal only too familiar tropes that define its political character. Among these tropes, is the infamous, Byzantine relationship between Pakistan’s President, Prime Minister, and Army Chief—the troika. Indubitably, the latter-most among these wields the most power by virtue of being the head of Pakistan’s most organised and cohesive organisation. However, even he cannot bring in changes in Pakistan’s political character to align it with the system.

Most of Pakistan’s prime ministers have in fact begun their tenure with trilateral acquiescence and ended with bilateral acquiescence with the army chief or the president, often passing through trilateral confrontation.

This is principally because the army itself has come to be defined by its extra-constitutional roles. It is now a truism that Pakistan’s military has strayed out of its professional ambit for the most part of the state’s political history. The 1973 Constitution defines the roles of the armed forces in Article 245, which itself is part of a dedicated chapter for the military (Chapter 2 in Part XII). Interestingly, 245(1) adds that the armed forces shall “act in aid of civil power when called upon to do so”. This reflects the system’s attempt to regulate the inevitable involvement of the Pakistani military in the state’s political affairs, by defining a stringent mandate which places primacy on ‘civil power’. However, the fact that such systemic mechanisms are ill-suited to Pakistan’s political character is reflected best in the fact that the positions of president and army chief have been vested in the same person four times (1958-69, 1969-71, 1978-88, 2001-08). Gleaning from Pakistan’s political history, the troika’s relationship can be placed in four principal categories:
  1. Trilateral Confrontational—when all three actors (with all three offices held by different individuals) work against each other.
  2. Bilateral Confrontationalwhen two actors (with two offices held by one actor) work against each other.
  3. Bilateral Acquiescence*<1>—when two actors (with all three offices held by different individuals) work in tandem, against the third.
  4. Trilateral Acquiescence—when all three actors (with all three offices held by different individuals) work in tandem.
These categorisations are not meant to be strictly definitive of the entirety of any member of the troika’s term. Indeed, they cannot be so. Most of Pakistan’s prime ministers have in fact begun their tenure with trilateral acquiescence and ended with bilateral acquiescence with the army chief or the president, often passing through trilateral confrontation. This aspect of Pakistan’s political character has manifested itself in cycles—an army chief favours a political candidate, rigs the system in his/her favour, falls out with the prime minister eventually, and rigs the system again to oust him/her from office. This has been true especially from the Zia-Junejo period through the Nawaz Sharif-Benazir Bhutto shuttle in the 1990s, till the Imran-Bajwa relationship more recently.

The PM’s economic struggles and disagreements with the International Monetary Fund primarily propelled her ouster. More recently, the Army Chief (Qamar Bajwa), President (Arif Alvi), and PM (Imran Khan) worked through trilateral acquiescence between 2018 and 2020.

Internal economic dynamics

One factor, among others, that has significantly affected how the troika moves from one category to another, is the economic situation of the state which more often than not, has been crisis-ridden. The military’s deep corporate interests, termed “Milbus” by Ayesha Siddiqa, work largely through informal mechanisms outside of the formal budget, resembling the character versus system distinction. However, the nation’s overall economic health is directly linked with how Milbus itself accrues for the military. Since greater political stability (regardless of civilian or military rule) is necessary for better economic health, it has directly impacted how the troika operates. This has been evident historically as well as in current affairs. For instance, in 1988, the Prime Minister (Benazir Bhutto), President (Ghulam Ishaq Khan) and the Army Chief (Mirza Aslam Beg) worked through trilateral acquiescence. By 1990, this devolved into bilateral acquiescence between the President and the Army Chief as a result of several factors. The PM’s economic struggles and disagreements with the International Monetary Fund primarily propelled her ouster. More recently, the Army Chief (Qamar Bajwa), President (Arif Alvi), and PM (Imran Khan) worked through trilateral acquiescence between 2018 and 2020. Bajwa even expressed an unprecedented willingness to ‘freeze’ the military’s budget “in recognition of the dire economic situation in the country”. However, the government’s economic mishandling during and after the pandemic, combined with the Army Chief’s (rather vocal) focus on geoeconomics and regional stability, nurtured a rift strong enough for a political fallout in 2022. This time the bilateral acquiescence category comprised the President and PM (both belonging to the same political party) who felt threatened by the Army Chief. This latter example, however, needs to be further qualified.

The presidency post-2010 and the Imran Khan factor

It could be argued that ever since the 18th Amendment to the Pakistan Constitution in 2010 removed the powers that had accrued to the office of the President post-1985, it has virtually removed him from the troika. These powers included the right to dissolve the National Assembly, through Article 58(2)(b). Historically, each President has acted either by fully exercising his own agency or by acting as a broker for an external agent. Both the institution of Article 58(2)(b) and its dismantlement in 2010 reveals how a systemic instrument can alter the effectiveness of the President’s manoeuvres by allowing or denying him authoritative room. Notably, however, in the two years following the 2010 amendment, there was enough evidence to suggest that President Asif Zardari (despite the now ceremonial post he held) fell out with Pakistan’s Army Chief, forcing the two to publicly reconcile.

Imran Khan, as a powerful extra-systemic motivating agent, has relied heavily on the character of the President’s office in his attempts to influence the system.

More recently, with Imran Khan’s political activities across the year, the President’s position in the troika has further evolved. While the latter’s own agency has dwindled, his availability and tendency to act outside the system have not, due to the demands of Pakistan’s political character. Thus, Imran Khan, as a powerful extra-systemic motivating agent, has relied heavily on the character of the President’s office in his attempts to influence the system. This was true in his final days as PM and in his manoeuvres to get an army chief of his choosing. It is undeniable that Imran Khan has emerged as a political force to reckon with, displaying an eagerness to take on the military by mobilising significant street power that has been brought to bear, even directly. However, it could be argued that the very reason Imran Khan is proving to be a maverick is due to his persistence in using even ceremonial posts to badger the other members of the troika, and using the President’s office as a political tool. Thus, while the categorisation adopted for the troika is more historically applicable, its modern operation has been softened but not abolished. Imran Khan’s dislike of the new army chief is no secret—implying the potential for future discord through the President’s office. Moreover, given that Pakistan’s constitutional history has seen numerous upheavals with long-term effects, greater roles for the President in the future, cannot be ruled out due to Pakistan’s political character.

Looking ahead

A range of other factors influence how the troika operates, including key areas of foreign policy (especially Kashmir). However, the high positioning of economic stability in the military’s set of priorities has been evident during periods of military rule, and remains evident in these last 14 years of civilian rule (with the military influencing policy from the background while cosmetically returning to the barracks). Thus, the category of the relationship which is operational at any given point in time, as well as its composition, can also significantly be influenced by the Pakistani economy, which remains unstable. Both internal and external observers sounded alarm bells over Pakistan’s possible economic collapse earlier this year, which was staved off by yet another IMF bailout. At such a point, Munir has to deal with a prime minister with less than a year’s official tenure left, and a president who has been breaking unconstitutional sweat as he swings between loyalty to his party chief and the state. An optimist might believe that the economic crisis might finally push for a fifth category of trilateral alliance within the troika. This would entail each individual acting strictly within the bounds of his constitutional office, without acting directly/indirectly on behalf of extra-systemic agents, and thus, bringing the state’s political character closer to the system. Indeed, this is what Bajwa hankered for (his own motives notwithstanding). What is more likely is that the three shall work through trilateral acquiescence for as long as it is economically and politically convenient. However, even if Asim Munir decides to pro-actively cede more power to civilian institutions, if any of the other two actors of the troika are hostile, then such attempts cannot yield durable benefits for Pakistan’s political system.
<1> The term ‘aquiescence’ is preferred over ‘alliance’, as such relationships are interest based and whose endurance is not based on ideological or political commitment, meaning that agreement is often the result of immediate personal convenience rather than long term institutional strategy.
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Contributor

Bashir Ali Abbas

Bashir Ali Abbas

Bashir Ali Abbas is a Research Associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi. He is also a South Asia Visiting Fellow ...

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