In the wake of last week’s failed military coup in Turkey, there has been a considerable amount of discussion about the possible outcome of a similar intervention in Pakistan. After all, there are some superficial similarities between the two countries; both have a history of dictatorial rule by relatively competent, professionalised, and institutionally coherent militaries, have made comparatively recent transitions to democratic systems still undergoing consolidation, and are currently being governed by parties and leaders that polarize public opinion, stand accused of corruption and nepotism, and continue to engage in a style of governance that blends a narrative of economic growth and visible infrastructural development with increasingly authoritarian and centralized decision-making. Just as Erdogan’s concentration of power in his own hands, coupled with his use of Islam as a legitimating ideology, allegedly prompted intervention by a faction of the Turkish military motivated by a desire to protect the country’s democratic and secular traditions, speculation about a potential coup in Pakistan has been animated by the belief that the PML-N’s incompetence and venality might prompt a similar reaction. Perhaps more importantly, as demonstrated by Imran Khan’s statement that a coup would be welcomed by the people of Pakistan, debate has revolved around the question of whether such an attempt would even succeed in the current context.

At the outset, it is important to recognise how, for all their similarities, there are important differences between Turkey and Pakistan. Since coming to power in 2003, Erdogan has used his popularity amongst a significant section of the populace, driven in part by his appeals to Islam but also by the economic growth and populist rhetoric about development overseen by his regime, to engineer a process of constitutional and institutional change that has permitted the systematic disempowerment of potential rivals and opponents within the bureaucracy and, indeed, the military itself. This has been coupled with an increasingly heavy-handed approach to dealing with dissent and criticism, epitomised now by the post-coup arrests of tens of thousands of activists, academics, and state functionaries alleged to be opposed to the AKP government. Enjoying a measure of mass support and a relative lack of effective opposition, Erdogan was arguably well-placed to resist an attempt at a coup made by a faction of the military lacking the support of its comrades, the means through which to control the flow of information, and a plan for engineering the defection of individuals and groups aligned with Erdogan’s government.

Independently of whether or not the military in Pakistan would be interested in making a formal re-entry into politics at this juncture, it would be reasonable to assume that any attempt in that direction would not suffer from the levels of internal dissonance exhibited by the military in Turkey; while the Pakistani military may be as internally factionalised as any other, there is little reason to believe it is politicised in terms of being divided into partisan groups aligned with different parties or organised political interests. Unlike Erdogan, Nawaz Sharif has been able to do little to directly influence or alter the organisational coherence of the military, suggesting that an attempt at a takeover would not be stymied by significant internal divisions. Similarly, it might also be correct to assume that preparations for a takeover, both logistically and in terms of generating and propagating a legitimating narrative, would be undertaken well in advance of actual events.

However, unlike 1999 when General Musharraf was able to assume power and control the narrative by first ensuring that the headquarters of PTV were secured by his troops, the speed, fluidity, and extensity of flows of information in 2016 might militate against the kinds of straightforward coups that Pakistan experienced in the past. Erdogan’s ability to rally support for himself was made possible in no small part due to the inability of the Turkish military to effectively block his voice while generating a legitimating narrative of its own, and the proliferation of TV channels in Pakistan, not to mention the internet and social media, would certainly make it harder to accomplish this here as well.

While an inability to control the narrative might have corollary effects, allowing for forces opposed to a potential coup to be mobilised while also preventing the emergence of the belief that the collapse of the government is inevitable (thereby leading potential defectors to hedge their bets and wait), it is pertinent to question whether or not people in Pakistan would take to the streets in support of, say, Nawaz Sharif like they did for Erdogan. Here, speculative as such an analysis might be, it is possible to discern a couple of key factors that might be worth taking into consideration. For starters, as was the case in Turkey, mobilisation in such a context usually means being able to bring out activists and protestors in several key cities, generating enough resistance to prompt the military to take a decision between backing down or using force. In a scenario where the military is unable to control the flow of information, it might be reasonable to assume that people drawn from the PML-N’s support base in northern and central Punjab (and particularly Lahore) might be induced to defend the government, particularly if they were the recipients of state patronage and favour. However, given the PML-N’s lack of a coherent ideology (and, indeed, ideological supporters), any such pro-government mobilization might necessarily be transactional and susceptible to subversion should the military and its allied challengers be able to demonstrate their ability to replace the PML-N as state patrons.

This is precisely what military governments did in the past in Pakistan, and this strategy has historically rested in part on the ability of the military to attract defectors from ruling parties, as well as supporters from opposition parties, with this co-optation of the political elite allowing it to effectively take over the institutions of the state and the informal systems of power that underpin them. As such, the ability of the PML-N to manage its own internal divisions (highlighted most recently during the local government elections, as well as in speculative discussions about a post-Nawaz dispensation) prior to an attempted coup would be crucial. The same could be said about the opposition parties. While the PTI continues to send mixed signals about its views on the military’s role in politics, the PPP, ANP and other major parties ostensibly remain opposed to future military interventions. Should this continue to remain the case (a possibility that is far from guaranteed), it might be harder for the military to find credible partners to support in a post-coup environment.

The PML-N lacks the legitimacy conferred upon the AKP by its economic success and religious ideology, and has correspondingly been unable to consolidate its power in quite the same way as its Turkish counterpart. It also has to contend with internal factionalism driven by often localized rivalries over patronage and status, and opposition parties whose loyalties to democracy have always been fickle at best. However, while these factors might suggest the party and its government remain susceptible to being displaced by the military, things are not as straightforward as they were two decades ago. A thriving media landscape, the judicious use of visible patronage spending by the government, and the possibility of generating consensus between parties on the need to protect democracy means that if a coup were to be attempted, its outcome would be far from certain.