Who rules Pakistan?

Dr Niaz Murtaza
Thursday, May 15, 2014

Politicians, media, judiciary and militants have gradually challenged the military’s hold on politics. Its recent tiffs with civilians and the media highlight these trends and raise questions about who really rules Pakistan today.

In developed democracies, economic classes (capitalists, middle-income professionals and, secondarily, workers) are the main power contenders. They exercise power through their relative influence over state institutions, which pursue the interests of dominant classes faithfully rather than their institutional interests due to strong democratic currents.

The situation in countries like Pakistan is more complex. First, the classes also include landlords and peasants. Second, certain institutions (usually the army) compete with classes for direct or indirect control of state policies to serve their institutional interests. Third, ethnic divisions mean that multi-class ethnic coalitions are often stronger than multi-ethnic class coalitions. These different contenders possess military, economic, political and/or soft powers which they employ to capture or influence the ultimate power – governmental power.

Pakistan’s omnipotent army has ruled directly for 30 years. However, beyond the initial coup, its long rules were not based on brutal use of military power to crush opposition but its political and soft powers. Being too weak to vie for power directly, Pakistani elite classes preferred instead to pursue their interests by politically supporting army rule.

The US also supported army rule for its own interest. Army generals also amassed enormous soft powers by carefully cultivating the misperception of being more capable, virtuous and – most importantly – patriotic than politicians, thus gaining public support for prolonged military rule. In reality, military rule has been more harmful.

People say that the army intervenes to clear messes created by politicians. In reality, the military left behind bigger messes in 1971, 1988 and 2007 than what it had inherited in 1958, 1977 and 1999 and civilian rule had to be restored to clear it. While censuring media groups for relatively smaller indiscretions, the army forgets that it has gotten away without even minor punishment for the far more numerous and massive indiscretions that its top brass has committed.

However, the military’s ability to undertake coups has eroded significantly because of its depleted political power stocks. Having seen the army pursuing its own independent agenda which often conflicted with their interests, different classes – landlords (PPP), capitalists (PML-N) and finally middle-classes (MQM and PTI) – gradually started vying for power directly. The US also opposes military rule now.

Nevertheless, the army still surprisingly heavily influences the three most important policy domains (security, foreign and economic). This continuing influence derives from two factors. First, its soft power is still largely intact despite its questionable performance. While no longer seen as competent to run the country, it is still largely trusted to control foreign and security policies.

Second, its economic power has increased considerably through military-owned companies which support millions of people, mainly in Punjab and KP. It uses its different remaining powers to disrupt civilian policies surreptitiously, eg, orchestrating street demonstrations by allied groups against policies it disfavours thus keeping politicians in check. Having ruled directly for decades, it now looks to rule through covert control in critical policy domains for another few decades.

The military’s ability to rule indirectly will erode only if its soft power edge over politicians reduces. However, while political parties representing different classes have eclipsed the army’s political powers, they still lag far behind on soft powers. Currently, the biggest challenge to the army’s soft powers is coming not from economic classes but other state and non-state institutions – the judiciary and the media.

In Pakistan’s patronage-ridden political system, politicians win through political power (patronage distribution) rather than soft power (meritorious performance). Indirect army control over politics will become less possible once politicians develop genuine soft powers by abandoning patronage politics and performing properly. Thus, Pakistan will only slowly attain the situations prevalent in developed democracies where economic classes dominate.

However, recognising that the army’s ‘nuclear’ option (coups) has become more unlikely, politicians should become more assertive with the army in private policy discussions while avoiding unnecessary public spats, which the army will likely win due to its soft powers.


Nevertheless, Pakistan has witnessed huge dispersions of power gradually. Military power is dispersed today across the military, religious militants, ethnic militants and criminals. Political and economic power is dispersed across landlords, capitalists and increasingly the middle-class. Soft power is dispersed across the military, judiciary, media, maulvis and civil society. Governmental power is divided across the executive, judiciary, military and others. This dispersion is not bad (except the military power dispersion) since it creates plurality.

However, these stakeholders have very divergent ideologies and are thus pulling Pakistan into different directions. Hence the increasing lawlessness and instability today as Pakistan transitions from a military-led coalition into unchartered territory before a new coalition emerges. Countries achieve stability when a coalition of power-seekers convinces others to accept its agenda. Stability produces progress if the agenda is dynamic, while progress produces equity if the agenda is also progressive.

Pakistan currently does not even have stability let alone progress and equity. Stability will ultimately emerge as a new coalition replaces the erstwhile military-led coalition which provided patchy stability but little progress or equity. Whether that coalition provides progress and equity will depend on the identity and agenda of the emergent coalition. Meanwhile, in terms of being able to lead a coalition which provides even just stability, no one really rules Pakistan today.

The writer is a development and political economist and affiliated as a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley. Email: [email protected]