The Only Enemy Pakistan’s Army Can Beat Is Its Own Democracy

Pakistan has a new prime minister — at least for now. Last Tuesday, Pakistan’s parliament held a special election to replace Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), who was ousted in a judicial coup last week. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a staunch Sharif loyalist, is expected to keep the prime ministerial palace warm while the PML-N arranges to secure a seat in the parliament for Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz Sharif, in a coming by-election and as a prelude to hoisting him into the prime minister’s seat.

It is not surprising that Nawaz Sharif has been ousted. What is surprising is that he managed to hold on for so long. The army had its sights on Sharif before he was even sworn in after winning an unpredicted landslide victory in the 2013 election. It had already taken him out of office twice before. Shehbaz Sharif is much more palatable to the army. Unlike his brother, he has eschewed confrontation and has even maintained cordial ties with the generals.

Such are the prerequisites to holding power in Pakistan. Whereas many countries have an army, the Pakistani army has a country. For Pakistan’s powerful military, the notion of actual democracy is contemptible. The army long ago arrogated the right to step in whenever it felt wanted and repeatedly reminds Pakistanis that civilian leaders are the bane of the nation while the army is the only savior. Whether directly or indirectly, the army has ruled the country since the first Pakistani army chief — Ayub Khan — staged a coup in October 1958. It has done a far better job hanging on to power than it ever has at winning a war.

Since 2008, when democracy was formally restored after Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s nine-year dictatorship ended, Pakistan’s predatory praetorians have faced a looming problem: Democracy, however flawed, was taking root right under their well-groomed moustaches. Although the general election that brought Sharif to office was not pristine, it was the first time that a democratically elected administration had completed its term (although not without considerable havoc ginned up by the army) and handed power over to another democratically elected administration.

Between 1988, when democracy was restored after the demise of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in a plane crash, and 1999, the army connived to depose the governments of Benazir Bhutto in 1990 and in 1996 and that of Nawaz Sharif in 1993 and ousted Sharif — again! — in a bloodless coup in 1999. But given that…

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