Analyzing Military Coups: Creating Free and Democratic Societies for the Future

Milly Wang, Canada, Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, 11th Grade, 3rd Place Winner.

Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has experienced 64 harsh years of recurring military coups, instable democracies, crippled economies, fragile judiciaries, social stagnation and corrupt bureaucracies (Saleem, 2010). The most recent 1999 military coup is simply a window to Pakistan’s troubled past. The very roots of Pakistan’s unstable government history can be traced back its beginnings as an independent country. To formally establish proper democracy, the situation in Pakistan must first be fully understood. It is crucial to delve into and analyze the roots of unstable governments and military regimes in order to apply the lessons learned to future governments. That way, it becomes increasingly possible to provide future generations with a safer and more democratic world.

October 12th, 1999 marked the day when the armed forces of Pakistan overthrew the civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and replaced him with army chief General Pervez Musharraf. This devastating military coup had taken Pakistan’s military only 17 hours to carry out. But it could have unravelled in less than an hour if General Musharraf had been prevented from landing in Karachi (Bennet-Jones, 1999). Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s failure to stop General Pervez Musharraf from uniting the army showed how well prepared the military had been to defend their high command and take on the civilian government.

The immediate events that lead to the military coup first began when General Musharraf, on an official visit to Sri Lanka, received intelligence that the tension between the prime minister and himself had finally reached a breaking point. Prime Minister Sharif and General Ziauddin had met secretly in Islamabad and were planning to move against General Musharraf that very day (Bennet-Jones, 1999). If the events had run according their plan, General Ziauddlin would have replaced Musharraf as the Army Chief General, and would have stepped, effectively, into the most powerful job in the military. In response, General Musharraf raced to Colombo airport and boarded a flight back to Karachi. Back in Islamabad army chiefs loyal to Musharraf began to mobilise troops stationed in nearby Rawalpindi.

Hours later, troops from 111 Brigade of the 10th Corps were on their way to Islamabad (Bennet-Jones, 1999). The following 90 minutes forever changed the future of Pakistan. As troops poured onto the streets of the capital, the 111 Brigade stormed the state television station in Islamabad. Minutes later, broadcasting signals were shut down, preventing information from being released. Elsewhere, troops disarmed security guards protecting Prime Minister Sharif’s residence. Faced with the prime minister’s refusal to resign or to rescind his orders to dismiss Musharraf, the army officers placed him in a guest house near the airport. Soldiers fanned out across the nation, taking control of administrative buildings in every province and placing Sharif loyalists and the cabinet under house arrest (Bennet-Jones, 1999).

After General Musharraf landed safely in Karachi despite Prime Minister Sharif’s attempts to redirect his plane, military officers across the nation announced that the coup was virtually complete. Several hours later, the army restored television broadcasts and a terse announcement ran across the bottom of the screen stating that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had been dismissed (Bennet-Jones, 1999). The following morning, General Musharraf addressed the nation in a pre-recorded message which brought the Sharif era to a close.

This military coup had set off a worldwide chorus of condemnation. Less than a few months after appointing General Musharraf as the head of the army, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif found himself deposed by the very same man (Fish, 1999). But while the trigger for Pakistan’s fourth military coup was undoubtedly the fallout from the Kashmir crisis, the seedlings of its beginnings can be found years ago, when the prime minister first started to concentrate power around himself. Nawaz Sharif came to power with a massive majority in 1997. Within months, he had amended the constitution to prevent the president from dismissing an elected government. He then went on to dispose of Chief Justice Ali Shah after Ali Shah attempted to bring charges of corruption against him (Abbas, 1999). After the previous Army General Karamat resigned in anger over conflicting views, Sharif moved quickly and appointed Pervez Musharraf to the position of army Chief General. Regional analysts had speculated that he had chosen General Musharraf not only to show his own grasp over the military but also to put in place a man he believed would have been unable to build a powerbase in the military (Fish, 1999). These actions are not reflective of a prime minister who had the country’s interests in mind, nor are they of a prime minister who practiced democracy.

The popularity of the Sharif government had plunging amid an economic slump and a law and order crisis. With debts of about 34 billion and foreign reserves of just 1 billion, spiralling defence costs in the wake of Pakistan’s retaliatory nuclear test in May 1998 dramatically worsened the climate for international assistance on which Pakistan critically depended (Bradnock, 1999). As a result, General Pervez Musharraf had come to office amid high hopes. Many Pakistanis had expressed relief that the government of Nawaz Sharif had fallen (Bennett-Jones, 2000). Perhaps the most evident reason for this is due to the fact that Pakistan not had experienced the true essence of democracy under the Sharif government; they had encountered only a mere label of democracy. The actions of the Sharif government cannot be counted as the actions of a truly democratic government. The 1999 military coup of Pakistan is not unlike military interventions in the past which have occurred when the civilian government had been ineffectual and inept. A real democratic government would not have fallen because it would have had the support of the people. It would have reflected the views and opinions of the masses.

Democracy is a political form of government in which the governing power is derived from the people. The term comes from the Greek word “δημοκρατία”, which means rule by the people (Dahl, 2011). There is no specific, universally accepted definition of ‘democracy’; however, equality and freedom have been identified as important characteristics of democracy. Under democracy, all citizens are equal before the law and have equal access to power. Since a democratic government has the support of the people, it is the only political system that does not face the imminent threat of military coups.

Traditionally, Muslim Rulers and Hindu Rajas encouraged art, literature, and music, but not democracy (Saleem, 2010). The balance of power between the executive, judiciary and parliament is the most fundamental prerequisite for a liberal democratic state. However, Pakistan was never able to achieve this balance after its independence due to the political role of the military, which became the most organized institution in the post independence period (Saleem, 2010). The military is more powerful and resourceful than all other civilian institutions and organs of the state put together. It has had a veto over most critical decisions that affect both foreign and security policies. This enables the military to control civilian institutions, political processes and democracy either directly or from behind the curtain. When one institution of the state retains such unchecked power, it becomes extremely tempting for other political forces to seek its assistance in acquiring political office or dislodging others from political office. As a result, the continued cycle of military coups and military regimes continue on. In order for Pakistan to achieve the true essence of democracy, balance must be struck between civilian institutions and the military. This is the only option for enabling the country to prosper in the future as free and democratic state.

The civilian governments of Pakistan in the past were of only transient significance. The military, the higher echelons of the civil service, and the intelligence services are the permanent features of the state. There has been little or no evidence that the civilian government has had any meaningful autonomy. This must change. This pseudo-democracy situation neither benefits the civilians nor the country as a whole. A stronger government that has the support of its people is able to gain a more prominent international standing and achieve greater deeds than a government that only relies on fear and military power can.

On the three occasions since independence when military coups have ended democratic rule in Pakistan, numerous judges have been removed by force. To have true democracy, the judiciary must be a separate system from the government. Judges cannot effectively enforce their power if they stand risk of losing their position. It is recognized worldwide that an independent judiciary is crucial to a free and democratic society.

A proper role of opposition parties must also be established. In the past, opposition parties have aimed more towards achieving power through the support of undemocratic forces and illegal actions instead of focusing on keeping the present government in check and representing the interests of the people (Saleem, 2010). That is not the proper role for an opposition party. The opposition party is required to balance out the interests of the governing party and represent the nation more fairly and equally.

Unfortunately, political parties in unstable countries have always managed to reduce the objectives of their political movements’ downs to a one goal —toppling the present government (Saleem, 2010). Instead of challenging polices of the current government, the oppositional forces are often more interested in the capturing state power to reap the benefits for themselves. Consequently, every political movement ultimately ended up as no more than a change of faces at the top level as opposed to the much needed changes in the social, economic and foreign policies of the country. This endless cycle of destruction must be stopped to ensure the future peace and prosperity of citizens.

The rule of law, an independent judiciary, and respect for fundamental human rights, equality and civic participation are all crucial qualities of good governance. Unfortunately, these characteristics which make up a strong, popular government have been lacking since the Pakistan’s independence. Good governance of a country not only involves political leadership, bureaucracy, and civil society, but also community leaders and others are willing to speak out and play a role in influence decision-making and the implementation of laws and policies within society.

For those who hope to prevent military interventions that lead to the deaths of civilians and the destruction of their country’s political and economic foundation, it is important to understand the difference between a powerful government that serves the people and a merely power-hungry government. The former would result in a stronger nation whereas the latter is just a breeding ground for continued instability, violence and military interventions. Governments must develop strategies for economic growth, poverty alleviation, and reduction of interpersonal and interregional income disparities. It must allow the development of institutions that would work independently of those who control politics. This would create the much needed balance in an unstable country.

The political system and institutions must be strengthened. The government must work to develop a dynamic and sustainable economy, eradicate corruption, seek consensus based political solutions, and resolve ethnic, sectarian and religious fault lines. Freedom of speech needs to be respected for a society to be truly democratic. The civilian and military leaders who curbed media often snubbed the voices of the people. This in turn helped them to nourish corruption as the masses were kept ignorant and the judges were restricted from proper power. Independence of Judiciary will strengthen democracy, restore trust between the people and the state, and facilitate quick dispensations of justice. Peace within and outside of the borders will help to provide sufficient resources, skills and opportunities to promote national prosperity.

There needs to be accountability at all levels of the government. Allowing the public to access necessary information is critical in building trust in the government and the state. Key characteristics distinguish unstable governments from the rest. It is important to acknowledge these characteristics in order to eliminate them to ensure a secure, functioning society. Everyone must be on board as these troubled countries steer themselves towards genuine democracy and away from terrorism and violence that has begun to take roots such societies.



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