The military has always played a significant role in Pakistan’s political decision-making and possess a great deal of influence on governmental entities. In recent years, the involvement of the military in every major governmental issue has raised concerns amongst civilians for becoming a threat to democracy. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has further derailed Pakistan’s democracy as its army steps in to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and deploys troops nationwide to ensure lockdowns and curfews as well as assist civilians with medical resources. In doing so, the powerful military of Pakistan has yet again shown to have an upper hand in the country’s major operations.
The first coronavirus case in Pakistan was reported on February 26, 2020. Despite Pakistan being the fifth populous country in the world, the government was not proactive in taking preventive measures to stop the spread of coronavirus. Moreover, Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly opposed lockdown when masses asked for measures to be taken. Pakistan army, unhappy with Khan’s decision, took over the situation in March 2020 by deploying troops around the country to ensure safety for its civilians. The country’s powerful military backed a strict lockdown at the same time that Khan opposed it, saying it would devastate the economy, pushing a large segment of population below the poverty line. This would pose even bigger challenges of hunger and survival, worsening the overall situation. The military’s growing involvement has proven to have a positive influence on bringing the pandemic situation under control – at least for now. By adopting the “smart” hotspot lockdown strategy, the infected cases and death rate saw a huge decline from June to August 2020.
Even though the military’s efforts seem to be filling the gaps in areas where government fails, it raises a huge concern about the weak position of Khan’s administration as it is clear that the military has immense power and the ability to seize direct control over the government. There is a fear amongst the civilians that the military will eventually take over the government, while some believe that the military was waiting for an opportunity to take over this situation. As evident in history, the army has again taken political advantage of the country’s situation, strengthening authoritarian tendencies which reflect the populist ideology prevalent in Pakistan’s political agenda. Thus, every now and then the military has made people believe that no one other than the military itself is invested in the wellbeing of the citizens, portraying the idea of populism as explained in Muller’s book, “What is populism?”. Either way, it is obvious that Pakistan Army is becoming more powerful as the government continues to weaken.
It is reported that government officials were actively monitoring the outbreak situation in the neighboring countries, China and Iran, while they failed to take any preventive actions in keeping the virus out of the country. The first few cases were brought into Pakistan by pilgrims returning from Iran. Knowing that Iran already had an outbreak, Pakistan’s federal authorities failed to properly screen and quarantine civilians. Khan did not speak about the brewing crisis until after there was an outbreak in the city of Karachi. In his first public appearance, he addressed the nation saying “there was no need to panic because for the majority, the disease would feel like mild flu”. His stance on lockdown was that a shutdown would hurt the poor as they are dependent on their daily income. Khan left the civilians with no sense of direction due to his inability to implement a strategic plan to tackle the already worsening situation. Moreover, there was no effort to equip hospitals, provide emergency aid, or even a mass messaging campaign by the authorities to provide guidelines. This situation not only violated human rights but also weakened the government even more, hurt Khan’s own political future as well. Seeming confused about the direness of the situation did not help his political image either. He first dismissed the gravity of the situation, and when it started getting out of control, the prime minister backtracked his statement and turned onto the unfortunate public blaming them for taking the pandemic lightly and not being concerned enough which led to a rapid increase in the number of cases. On the other hand, the equally responsible public is to be blamed mainly due to the fact that they failed to comply with the government’s decision of following WHO’s coronavirus SOPs, which included social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, and face coverings, during Eid-al Fitr season in late May 2020.
Throughout Pakistan’s political history, every appointed government has let down its citizens, failing to provide them with their basic human rights. Pakistan’s weakened political institutions along with the military overtaking major operations, particularly during COVID-19 crisis, deals a major blow to Pakistan’s democracy.