‘Pakistan’s rise to Military Rule and its Political and Societal degeneration’

 By Shreya Kashyap


Martial law is when the army takes over all domestic affairs of the country. This concept isn’t utopian to Pakistan, it has been under military coups thrice under four different military rulers. Pakistan is constitutionally a democratic parliamentary republic with its political system based on elected form of governance. But over the years, it has continuously fallen under the rule of martial law.

Pakistan first came under military rule in 1958 when President Iskander Mirza abrogated the constitution and declared martial law with Gen. Ayub Khan as the Chief Martial Law Administrator, a few weeks later Ayub Khan was made the President of Pakistan. This first martial law lasted 44 months officially but Gen Ayub Khan only left office in 1969 and named Gen. Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan as his successor. Like Khan, Gen. Yahya Khan was the Chief Martial Law Administrator. After the severe loss to India in the war of 1971, Gen. Yahya Khan unlike Gen. Ayub Khan could not choose his successor and had no choice but to name Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who emerged victorious in the nation’s first general elections, as his successor.

The second military coup took place in 1977 when Gen. Zia ul Haq and his army dissolved the parliament and placed Bhutto under house arrest. Zia ul Haq initially came to power promising a fairer election with an even more suitable result but it was soon realized that Zia had no intention of leaving. Gen. Zia ul Haq finally resigned in 1985 after handpicking Muhammad Khan Junejo as the country’s new prime minister while also ending Pakistan’s second experience under martial law.

The third and the last military coup took place in 2007 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over from Nawaz Sharif. Sharif was already facing backlash from the country for retreating the Pakistani forces out of Kargil. Sensing the possibility of a military coup, Sharif attempted to replace Musharraf from his position as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee but this wasn’t possible as the army itself favored Musharraf and instead, removed Sharif from his post and replaced him with Musharraf. Musharraf finally resigned and brought an end to Pakistan’s last military coup in 2008 with Asif Ali Zardari becoming the new President.

The National Assembly in 2010 passed the 18th Amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan. This amendment implemented a lot of changes but the one most highlighted was that it removed the power of the President of Pakistan to dissolve the parliament unilaterally turning Pakistan from a Semi-Presidential to the Parliamentary Republic. The main aim of implementing such a big change was to ensure that Pakistan now moved in a democratic direction preventing any sort of military coup from taking place. It was then assumed that the power of the military would as a result of this amendment reduce comparatively; the power once held entirely by the army would be divided equally amongst the other democratic bodies (i.e. the legislature, executive, and judiciary). Though Pakistan has since seen a fairly democratic transition of powers amongst the heads of the states, the influence of the army on the decision-making bodies hasn’t reduced recent developments suggest that it has increased in more subtle but prominent ways.

A modern ‘democratic’ military rule

Pakistan’s last general elections were held in 2018 with Pakistan Tehreek-i- Insaaf’s (PTI) leader, Imran Khan emerging victorious. Though Khan came to power with a majority, the opposition does not believe to accept the same. The opposition parties in 2020 formed an alliance called the Pakistani Democratic Movement (PDM) which they explained to be similar to the Non-Cooperation Movement during the partition of India. PDM aims to hold countrywide rallies and protests against the government in power. The members of this alliance feel that the general elections were rigged and Imran Khan came to power solely because of the army which they believe is providing the PTI government ‘fake stability’. They additionally believe that the military interfered with the elections to bring a ‘puppet government’ to power through which they can control the country. Lastly, the opposition parties have also expressed their ‘extreme concerns’ over the army’s involvement in the country’s internal matters; a classic example of the same can be seen when COAS Gen. Bajwa met with agriculturalists and businessmen in Pakistan to convince them to pay their taxes on time and increase exports to support the economy. This clearly shows the powers Gen. Bajwa has to make financial decisions about the country that clearly in a democracy aren’t supposed to be with the army.

Another example of the military’s interference in non-defense-related matters and the powers that Gen. Bajwa holds is highlighted when Bajwa got a 3-year extension as COAS. The Supreme court’s order for the same lacked legality and became highly controversial, resulting in a court case. On 28th November 2019, the SC ruled to extend Bajwa’s tenure by 6 months and ordered the parliament to formulate ‘New Rules’ in the Army Act and the 1973 Constitution for the process. This clearly shows that even the judiciary does not have a say against the COAS. This example also reflects the overall societal degeneration of Pakistan, where the Judiciary in an ideal democratic state is considered the most important and powerful machinery to ensure upholding the rule of law and representing and protecting the rights of the people, is miserably failing to follow the same.

It’s not just the decisions that the army has taken that proves the undaunted support that Imran Khan is getting from them, it is also the decisions that the PTI government has taken since they have come to power that proves the very same; a direct example is when the PTI government came to power in July 2018, social media platforms like Twitter were swamped by open and discreet campaigns by the party advocating Pakistan’s return to a Presidential system with a centralized state structure. In June 2021, an Urdu hashtag was trending on Twitter that translated “Pakistan’s Presidential system is around the corner”. This means that one agenda of Imran Khan’s government is to revoke the 18th Amendment of the constitution that in 2010 took away the President’s power to unilaterally dissolve the parliament. This amendment benefited everyone except the army, it took away the military leaders’ ability and even aspiration to be able to rule the country directly. So, the PTI’s decision to bring back the Presidential system is for no one else but the army.

Lastly, the problem of Pakistan is a continuing greater political economic issue. Hamza Alavi  (1972) believes that a nexus of power exists in Pakistan between the landlords, the military, the bureaucracy and what he calls “the Metropolitan capital”, which based on Pakistan’s colonial legacy and evolution has results in an “overdeveloped” postcolonial state presiding over and underdeveloped society.

Reasons why the Pakistan army’s influence over a democratically elected govt does not come as a shock

As mentioned in the introduction, Pakistan has been ruled by four different military rulers under three different military coups, which allows us to safely assume that no one generation in Pakistan has seen a complete democratic rule, the military has always been involved so the people of Pakistan have started to accept these interferences and control in the democracy. Ayesha Siddiqua, a Pakistani political scientist has in her article in the East Asian Forum expressed her concern over the weakening of politics in Pakistan as the people have almost stopped protesting to express their discontentment with the government over even comparatively trivial but important matters like hike in food and basic utilities. Siddiqua blames decades of ‘patronage politics’ that have systematically weakened the politics in the country. Siddiqua also mentions how the second half of 2019 saw a plummeting economy and rising inflation. But patronage politics deprived people of their capacity to protest and conduct political movements. This clearly shows that Pakistan’s lack of experience with democracy and excess experience with patronage politics now has a direct impact on the expectations that the citizens of Pakistan have concerning a leader.

Reasons for the military’s resistance to renounce political control

Theoretically speaking, one wouldn’t expect an army that has since its inception had the availability of excess power and control over the entire country to suddenly give it up for a system like ‘Democracy’ which is so utopian to them. But the real problem is not Democracy, it is that the military leaders feel that the political leaders in the past have failed to deliver Good Governance hence, they believe they can do what the politicians failed to do. Once the military has been exposed to supreme political powers like the ones under the cover of martial law or emergency decrees, they are reluctant to surrender all such powers. Hasan Rizvi Sheikh mentions the different courses of action available to them to maintain power – 1. The ruling generals sometimes resign their military rank and civilianize their regime by co-opting civilians (this is a course that was adopted by gen. Ayub Khan);

  1. The military commanders can transfer power to those who share their political perspective or establish a puppet civil government (like the PTI is currently accused to be);
  2. They may keep an eye on the civil government after withdrawing to the barracks from which they can pressure the civilians to adopt policies of the military’s choice (also what the army seems to be doing currently).


The Pakistani army is no doubt facing a lot of backlash from the opposition parties in Pakistan so there is visibly an increase in the pressure faced by both the military and Imran Khan’s government. Imran Khan himself at times seems to be at a crossroads with the military but the military will not let go of Khan soon. The reasons being – 1. The military does not have any other potential leader who can replace Imran Khan 2. The PTI currently seems to be the only party that could potentially take a step as big as to revoke the 18th Amendment of the constitution simply because they were not in parliament to pass the same so they can oppose the amendment without being hypocritical.


It is time to realise that the Pakistan army can not and will not ever play a role in maintaining a peaceful democratic nation. But, in the near future, it is highly unlikely that the military’s power will be reduced, in fact, the military will find new ways to increase its powers and influence over the politics of Pakistan as it is doing so now. The current ‘hybrid regime’ in power is only the beginning of a much bigger and far-fetched plan that includes the military regaining its supreme political powers.


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