A PARADE FOR THE GENERAL
Fourteen months after the general election, General Pervez Musharraf's Legal Framework Order (LFO) has finally become part of the constitution. What has seemed like an eternity of wrangling between the government and the opposition (inclusive of the mullahs) has finally come to an end. The agreement reached between the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA)—the alliance of six religious parties was announced by General Pervez Musharraf himself over national television. The general, and all the others associated with the deal, proclaimed the triumph of democracy.
Even though the opposition had been clearly disturbed by the whimsical decree which empowered Pervez Musharraf to remain president and army chief for another five years, head a military-civilian National Security Council, dissolve the National Assembly and sack prime ministers, yet to say that this development is unexpected would be naive. A final settlement on the issue had been imminent for many months, even though the MMA continues to strike a pose about the signing of the agreement against "dictatorship". It is now fairly common knowledge that the army has supported far-right religious groups in Pakistan for many years, including some of the parties which belong to the MMA alliance. It is also a well-known fact that there is still much internal tension within the army over the apparent moves of the current leadership to revoke the many privileges that have accrued to the religious right over the past two decades. Therefore, there was only ever going to be one outcome of this overplayed drama—the consummation of the long-standing re-lationship between the mullahs and the military.
Unbelievably, the chorus of praise for General Musharraf that emanated from the leadership of the PML-Q after the announce-ment of the agreement included a suggestion that the general had made the biggest sacrifice yet by any military ruler in Pakistan's history. This is quite an overstate-ment, to say the least. The agreement that was signed was hardly different from the originally proposed LFO. And while it is quite something that Musharraf eventually got his way on the LFO, perhaps what is more astonishing is the unprecedented fact that the army will not only dictate terms to the government but will, in fact also, dictate terms to the opposition.
The MMA, despite having only 62 seats in the lower house, is likely to be given the slot of leader of the opposition, while the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD)—mainly consist-ing of the PML-Nawaz and Pakistan People's Party (PPP)—will not get the coveted slot despite having 82 seats. Meanwhile, of course, Musharraf has been confirmed president by the required two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and by the provinces (with token abstentions by MMA members). He also remains Chief of Army Staff (COAS), with even the stipulated date of retirement from that office—31 December, 2004— now being considered merely tentative.
All in all, quite the victory for democracy. The response from the ARD has been muted, confirming the relative impotence of what are still popularly considered the two biggest parties in the country (albeit far more so in the case of the PPP than the PML-N in terms of seats won). It cannot be stressed enough that Pakistani society is acutely de-politicised. Blatant heists, such as this latest agreement, hardly create a ripple in the popular consciousness. Among other things, the intelligentsia in the country remains complicit in the shenanigans of the elite. The media has made some advance in recent times, but even so, self-censorship is common, and, in any case, the govern-ment still holds a virtual monopoly on information dissemination in the country.
There are still many voices in Pakistan, unsurprisingly many hailing from army backgrounds, that insist that democracy does not suit the polity. On the face of it, this may not be such an outrageous claim, not only for Pakistan but for any third world state that was blighted by the legacy of colonialism, in this case manifest in the system of Western parliamentary demo-cracy. But it is now a matter of conjecture whether or not independence movements in the colonial world after the second world war should have been more revolutionary, and less content to simply takeover from the departing colonial powers. The fact is that we in Southasia did adopt a particular form of government, and the international system has since developed in such a way that alternatives have been virtually exter-minated. That said, looking towards a transparent and unfettered democratic process is very much our best bet, at least for the time being.
Given the fact that the elite in countries like Pakistan have typically managed to retain their privileged status, the establishment of democratic norms is key to redressing major imbalances in resource access and allocation. At the same time, there is increasing evidence in the rich countries of the world to suggest that the prevailing form of electoral democracy on show is simply reinforcing the global status quo. So, ultimately, it is not enough to establish a free and fair electoral process in Pakistan, because the minimum form of political democracy that such a process implies hardly guarantees economic democracy, which is what the people desperately need. Nonetheless, there can be little question that, for now, without the establishment of such an electoral process—one that the army cannot manipulate—prospects for further evolution are slim. It is only after such a process takes root that Pakistan can start to consider more people-oriented and organic forms of political and social organisation.
So the agreement between the mullahs and the military making the LFO the 17th amendment to the 1973 constitution is definitely a step in the wrong direction. But then the mullahs and the military have perennially taken steps in the wrong direction as far as the general public is concerned. The question remains: who will come to the fore to finally put a stop to the madness and assert the people's sovereign will? And the answer, as it has been in the past, is that it must be the people themselves who do what needs to be done. It remains a mystery why there is still debate over the prospects of the military, mullahs, or for that matter any other elite interest group in this country turning things around. None of these groups has any interest in doing so, and any change in recent times, whether in foreign policy vis a vis Afghanistan and Kashmir, or domestically in terms of the operation of sectarian outfits, has been the result of external pressures.
As the frenzy over the 12th SAARC summit in Islamabad subsides, it is worth recognising that even the recent peace posturing between India and Pakistan has much to do with the United States, and it is plain for all to see how genuine "peace" initiatives taken by imperial power typically turn out. The mullah-military agreement came at a very convenient time for General Musharraf, such that he could finally parade himself as president of Pakistan without the baggage associated with a constitutional dispute over his own legitimacy. The MMA can harp all it wants on the fact that General Musharraf will not be considered legitimate until he sheds his uniform, but the fact of the matter is that it is the general who is calling the shots in this country, and ultimately the MMA is quite happy to follow his lead. While this charade continues, it is up to the rest of us to consider how to break the cycle.