The army’s influence on Pakistan’s election on July 25 was greater than it has ever been. Since its creation in 1947, after the partition of British India, Pakistan has had 30 years of military rule (1958–70, 1977–88 and 1999–2008). But for the past 10 years, the military has stayed in the background, allowing civilian politicians to take turns in power after elections that were always marred to some extent by electoral irregularities.
The 2008 elections had been a two-stage transition to democracy: In February that year the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) won the parliamentary election, benefiting from a wave of sympathy after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, daughter of PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; then in August General Pervez Musharraf relinquished the presidency to Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari. In 2013, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, a democratically elected government completed its full term and there was a democratic change of government, with the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) succeeding the center-left PPP.
This strengthening of the democratic process was bound to disturb the military, which is often referred to euphemistically as “the establishment” but is also known by its opponents as the “deep state” because of the key role of its intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Not only did the creation of legitimately elected civilian powers threaten to reduce the army’s influence, but some elected PPP and PML-N leaders tried to pursue policies that ran counter to the military’s wishes, especially towards India, which it regards as its principal enemy. Zardari offered to cooperate with India in the investigation into the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which more than 160 people were killed. Since a part of Pakistan’s military had been behind these attacks, he had to retract his offer quickly.
Zardari’s successor, Nawaz Sharif (PML-N), who had already been prime minister 1990–93 and 1997–99, was unexpectedly less biddable. Sharif, a businessman whose political career had been launched by the military to challenge Benazir Bhutto, had tried in the late 1990s to free himself from military influence. During his second term, he had made peace overtures to India, since he was convinced that Pakistan was wasting resources in an arms race with its neighbor and that its economy could greatly benefit from bilateral trade links. The 1999 coup was very much an expression of the military’s disapproval of this policy. Sharif did not abandon it when he returned to power in 2013, as shown by his meetings with India’s Prime Mnister Narendra Modi in 2014 and 2015. The military, which permanently opposes normalized relations with India, managed to derail these discussions, because normalization would mean ratifying the partition of Kashmir; this would deprive the military of one of its raisons d’être and reduce its budget.