The term “hybrid regime” was first used by the Hungarian sociologist Elemér Hankiss in the 1990s. He used it to describe the communist regime of János Kádár in Hungary. Kádár was appointed by the Soviet Union as Hungary’s premier in 1956, after a popular uprising in Budapest against the communist set-up was crushed by Soviet forces.
Kádár treaded a fine line between the democratic aspirations of the protestors, and Soviet-style authoritarianism. He introduced civil, cultural and economic reforms that were a departure from the previous Stalinist model of authoritarianism. But he maintained the political supremacy and monopoly of the Hungarian Communist Party.
Hankiss’ term was picked up by European and American political scientists to mean a transitional period in former communist countries and non-communist dictatorships when these began to adopt democratic reforms after the end of the Cold War in 1991. Till the 1980s, countries going through this process were described as ‘transitional democracies’. But this term was replaced with ‘hybrid regimes’ in the immediate post-Cold War period.
Initially, there was an element of optimism in the term, because most political scientists believed hybrid regimes would eventually evolve into full-fledged liberal democracies. However, in 2002, the American political analyst Thomas Carothers, asked political scientists to study the term ‘hybrid regime’ without the optimism attached to it, and without the assumption that such regimes would transform into becoming liberal democracies. After Carothers’ advice, a conceptual shift occurred in the study of ‘hybrid regimes’.
This is when hybrid regimes stopped being understood as transitional and began to be seen as hindrances in the path of systems attempting to convert themselves into democracies.
Hybrid regimes are navigated by powerful state institutions (such as the military) or ‘strongmen’ (backed by state and economic elites). They adopt certain democratic traditions, such as elections, through which they legitimise their power and portray this power as if it were achieved through ‘democratic’ means. The elections are usually rigged and the assemblies are stuffed with manageable members who can be controlled.
In 2008, after the collapse of Pakistan’s last direct military dictatorship, and the country’s transition to democracy, the military establishment beat a strategic retreat. However, in 2011, the military decided to re-enter politics.
After concluding that conditions were not suited to engineer another military coup, the military decided to shape a hybrid regime and/or a set-up navigated by them from the shadows and having a cosmetic democratic front. The military theorised that the country’s two largest parties – the centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party, and the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz – had largely broken away from the military establishment’s orbit and, thus, could threaten its political interests.
It was also noted that the military dictatorship that had been ousted in 2008, had, however, managed to build a strong pro-military establishment constituency, mainly among the urban middle classes. The military establishment began to shape this constituency into a vote-bank.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, the once tiny centre-right party led by Imran Khan, was chosen to become the recipient of this vote bank. The party’s size witnessed an increase when the military establishment used its resources to bolster Khan’s then insignificant political stature through the manipulation of mainstream electronic media, social media and the induction of ‘electables’ plucked from various mainstream parties.
In 2018, an election was allegedly rigged because the vote bank that Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf had inherited wasn’t large enough to produce a convincing win. Khan became prime minister and headed a coalition government clubbed together with the help of the military.
The military establishment’s experiment of shaping and installing a hybrid regime was a success. But soon, the experiment started to unravel, putting the military on the spot. Once Khan began to lose the support of his erstwhile makers, his regime crumbled.
Could the military establishment not see that the experiment was bound to fail? Especially with a volatile character such as Imran Khan being at the centre of the experiment, and some overtly politicised military officers handling him? I believe the establishment was convinced that a hybrid regime could work if their chosen frontman was able to meet two conditions.
Firstly, a hybrid regime in a developing country needs to maintain good relations with developed countries. There are economic benefits in this if the regime comes across as being friendly, stable and strategically valuable. Being under the gaze of the developed countries helps the regime to legitimise itself as an internationally recognised entity, and avoid committing disruptive internal and external excesses.
In this, Khan was an unmitigated disaster. He ended up disrupting Pakistan’s historical economic, strategic and political relations with the US, European Union countries, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even China.
Secondly, according to the sociologist Natalia Forrat, if a country being led by an authoritarian or hybrid regime has democratic neighbours, that country will eventually transition to becoming a stable democracy. However, when Khan was installed as prime minister, Pakistan’s largest neighbour, India, had a hardline Hindu nationalist government.
Indeed, although India’s government had come in through an untampered democratic process in 2014, its disposition is not only overtly hostile towards Pakistan, it is also increasingly seen as a government that is eroding India’s established democracy. Then there is Iran, a theocracy, and Afghanistan, another theocracy, as neighbours.
With neighbours like these, Khan began to dream of creating a one-party state. That party would have been Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf using the military as his personal policing institution. Of course, this became a highly problematic notion for the establishment. He needed to stay the course of at least pretending to be a democrat.
Now that the hybrid experiment has imploded, one expects that Pakistan’s return to democracy, which was impeded by the experiment, will be able to regenerate itself. But it is important that regeneration is driven by certain considerations.
These include the repairing of economic and strategic ties with the US, European Union countries, Saudi Arabia and China, and a conscious effort to prove that Pakistan is not in any danger of becoming an Iran or an Afghanistan, or that its democracy will allow the coming to power of an ultra-nationalist demagogue, such as India’s Narendra Modi.
This article originally appeared in Eos, Dawn’s Sunday magazine, on December 4 and can be accessed here.