By Umer Farooq
A political set-up devoid of legitimacy invites military coups. In a politically unstable country like Pakistan, when the government’s legitimacy is lost or challenged, a military coup becomes a real possibility — this is clearly exemplified by the two previous military coups. General Ziaul Haq staged the 1977 coup when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government was facing a challenge to its legitimacy, from a coalition of groups belonging to the religious right alleging rigging in the general elections. General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and his generals staged their coup when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was facing allegations of rigging in parliamentary elections. In a subsequent case of intervention by the army, Musharraf was removed from power by his subordinate generals when the street protests spearheaded by the lawyers’ community brought into focus the question of Musharraf’s legitimacy — a question as old as the regime itself.
Every regime in the post-Musharraf period has faced a challenge to its legitimacy. This includes the administration headed by Musharraf himself. On the onset, he hardly faced political resistance of any significance to his rule; nevertheless, the legal and constitutional legitimacy of his rule were seriously questioned from the very start. The Lawyers’ Movement, starting in 2007, only brought this issue of legal and constitutional legitimacy to the forefront.
Legitimacy can be defined as a public perception that a ruler or a government has the right and authority to govern the country — politically, legally and morally. Losing legitimacy means a situation where the government or the ruler becomes devoid, in public perception, of the right to rule the country on account of any illegality or corruption.
The Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government was elected through a democratic electoral process which was legally, politically and morally legitimate. Nevertheless, a situation was created where the PPP was forced, through a campaign of media trials and succession of court judgments, to face allegations of financial corruption of its leaders and the situation escalated to created a sense of mistrust in the government.
The Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) government came into power in 2013 in an atmosphere where allegations of corruption were a constant. Something new and more powerful was required, and came when the leading opposition party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), pushed for rolling back the whole political system on the basis of alleged rigging in the 2013 election. The protests that brought these allegations into the limelight came and went away, with the Sharif government surviving the onslaught. However, the protests left lingering doubts in the public imagination about the credibility of parliamentary elections. These doubts could be left to hibernate, while the power struggle continued in the corridors of power in Islamabad, and revived at an appropriate time to act as the Sword of Damocles over the political system.
The Pakistani people have passively witnessed similar developments unfold so often in the past that they can make educated guesses regarding what the next act will entail, and who the main actors will be. The actors are constant: political parties of the religious right spearheading campaigns to raise the legitimacy question, the recently mobilised retired generals and ex-servicemen similarly advancing this campaign, and the media acting as another proxy in this game played out by not-so-hidden hands.