With Pervez Musharraf’s legitimacy and support base crumbling, Pakistan’s parties in the opposition plan a concerted attempt to restore democracy. A People’s Movement is what’s needed, nothing less.
In Pakistan’s tryst with long periods of military rule, elected civilian governments have appeared as mere aberrations. None of the dictators were ousted due to popular pressure – General Yahya Khan replaced Field Marshal Ayub Khan; it was the humiliating defeat in Bangladesh that ended Yahya’s tenure; and Zia Ul-Haq’s death in a mysterious air crash paved the way for a democratic interlude. The supremacy of the Pakistan Army as an institution has largely gone unchallenged, and the politicians remain meek when dealing with the generals. The broad pattern of Pakistani politics will not change in the absence of a mass upsurge.
On 14 May, Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif agreed to launch a joint campaign to restore democracy in Pakistan. They signed the Charter of Democracy, labeled as a historic document that would change the complexion of the state. The document promises to subordinate the military to civilian control, vest executive authority in the prime minister, and ensure independence of the judiciary. The two leaders also demanded that the 1973 Constitution be restored, and free and fair elections conducted under a national government.
Sharif had once expressed his fascination for the democratic culture in India, where political differences do not usually translate into personal animosity, and contrasted it to the situation in Pakistan. Indeed, Bhutto and Sharif were not on talking terms through the 1990s, and each spared no effort to use the state machinery to target the other while in power. Both have been accused of significant corruption: Bhutto looked the other way for her husband, who spent eight years in jail; Sharif, meanwhile, was sent into exile in lieu of serving extensive prison time for tax evasion and ‘terrorism and hijacking’. It is this bitter past that makes the agreement between the two leaders, out of sheer necessity if not ideological commitment, a significant event. It is this unity that promises to give a fresh lease of life to the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), which has been struggling to mobilise people against the Musharraf regime for more than five years. The ARD, which is comprised of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), along with other smaller outfits, is expected to ratify the Charter in early July.
The Charter is comprehensive in scope and ambition, and provides a framework to remedy the structural flaw in Pakistani politics that has left duly elected democratic governments at the mercy of the corps commanders headquartered in Rawalpindi. The parties have not presented an agenda replete with rhetoric, but a document that delineates how they plan to transform the political system. At the same time, the Charter is flexible enough to leave enough room for future negotiations. The promise to introduce provincial autonomy is an attempt to include leaders like Sardar Bugti of Balochistan in the agitation; but given the differences between the PPP and PML(N), as well as between the mainstream and regional leaders, it is not surprising that the document leaves the matter open-ended. There are other complex issues – the demand for the restoration of the 1973 Constitution, as it existed before the coup, ignores the grave distortions that had already crept in because of amendments introduced by Zia and, later, by Sharif himself.
These ambiguities, however, pale in light of Pervez Musharraf’s troubles. The general’s worry about his popularity is most clearly reflected in his ploy to get re-elected for a second term by the same assemblies that elected him five years back, in gross violation of both the letter and spirit of the Constitution. While Musharraf’s political legitimacy was always questionable, his performance has also taken a battering in recent months. The macro-economic indicators may appear deceptively stable, but living standards are dismal. The military is bogged down in Waziristan, even while the Balochistan crisis, the Kalabagh Dam controversy and demand for provincial autonomy remain contentious issues.
There are reports of fissures developing among the general’s loyalists. The recent US attack on innocent civilians in Bajaur Agency fueled suspicion and anger against the regime’s foreign policy stance. President Musharraf is also finding it increasingly difficult to continue his balancing act of being feted as a champion of the ‘war against terror’, while clandestinely keeping channels of communication open with several jehadi groups.
In the wake of this newfound energy among the political actors, and the president’s relatively weak position, it is tempting to conclude that democracy is around the corner in Pakistan. However, that would be putting the cart before the horse. Remember that the Charter was signed in London, where Bhutto is based. Sharif lives closer to home, but in Saudi Arabia. Their last meeting, in early June, took place in Dubai. While proclamations can be made from international capitals, a movement cannot be triggered from afar. Until the two top political leaders return to Pakistan and mobilise people at the ground level, the military will have no reason to be overly perturbed.
There is a slight practical problem though: President Musharraf has already announced that Bhutto would be arrested on corruption charges as soon as she arrives, while Sharif will not be allowed to return, as per an earlier political understanding he had with the army. We believe such threats needs a two-pronged response from the democratic forces in Pakistan. First, build up a mass campaign against the regime in the absence of the two leaders; at the same time, Bhutto and Sharif, taking into account local realities, must prepare to return. Mass sentiment is better triggered from a Lahore prison rather than from plush palatial bungalows overseas.
An important reason why these leaders need to plan a decisive movement soon is because elections for the National and Provincial Assemblies are scheduled for next year. Claiming that free and fair elections are not possible under the present dispensation, the parties have demanded the formation of a caretaker national government. Legitimate as the contention may be, it must be understood that the only way to see it through is by generating enough pressure so that the government is forced to buckle. If the ARD is unable to do that before the polls, it will either have to opt out of the elections or reconcile itself to contesting under the military’s supervision.
The task of organising such a mass struggle is indeed a major challenge in a fractured polity like Pakistan. One of the reasons why there has not been an effective campaign against the military over the past few years is the mutual suspicion between the PPP and PML(N) workers. Will the adoption of the Charter by the two leaders be enough to change attitudes? The heterogeneous nature and aspirations of various groups in Pakistan means that unless the two main parties create an all-inclusive agitation that accommodates conflicting interests, the agitation will not pick up momentum. The stand of the right-wing Islamist parties, especially Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which has an impressive strength on the streets, will be important in this regard.
For far too long, Pakistani politicians have either blamed the army or the ‘international community’ (read: the US) for the democracy deficit. However clichéd as it may seem, it is undeniable that once the people are on the streets asserting their rights, very little can stop this powerful force. While there have been a few civil-society groups and political activists who have consistently fought for democracy, the country has never witnessed a true People’s Movement that seeks to transform the structure of politics – placing the politicians in the seat of power in Pakistan, the army in the barracks, and declaring the people as supreme. The words of the Faiz Ahmed Faiz ballad for freedom “Hum Dekhenge”, as sung once by Iqbal Bano against the dictatorship of Gen Zia, need to finally be given their due in Pakistan.