The nightly broadcasts of Pakistan’s public network television channel, Pakistan Television (PTV), towards the end of April were dedicated to the standoff between the government and the opposition parties in parliament. The issue of contention was the controversial constitutional amendments package – the Legal Framework Order (LFO) – supported by Pervez Musharraf, which among other things combines in his person the offices of head of state and army chief. In particular, PTV was keen to point out that the six-month-old parliament is paralysed by the dispute, that billions of rupees of public money have already been wasted on sustaining a dysfunctional parliament, and that the prospects of reconciliation seem remote. The stage now appears to be set for dissolution of parliament by Musharraf.
A year after its genesis, the LFO continues to be a source of serious political instability in Pakistan. While described by Musharraf as a tame addition to the constitution of the country, in actuality the LFO has wide-ranging political, social and economic implications. Debates over it have taken centre-stage in the country over the past few months since the reinstitution of parliament.
As is known to observers of Pakistani politics, the role of the military has been central in the affairs of the state virtually since 1947. This has been the case despite the fact that, for all intents and purposes, the new Pakistani state did not have an active army when it came into being. However, a combination of internal and external factors, including elite composition of the state structure and the geostrategic needs of the United States, ensured that the army soon came to be the main powerbroker in the country’s politics.
Musharraf is third in a line of Pakistani military rulers. Like his predecessors, he has tried to cement his grip on power through the manipulation of legal and political institutions. His devolution plan greatly resembles the Basic Democracy of Field Marshal Ayub Khan in the 1960s. His insistence on holding a presidential referendum to consolidate his arbitrary presidency mirrored the shenanigans of General Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s. The LFO is the icing on the cake.
Before dwelling on the peculiarities of the current situation, it is important to understand where General Musharraf came from and how he quickly came to be the Western world’s favourite liberal military dictator. The coup of October 1999 that toppled the elected government of Nawaz Sharif was greeted with widespread disapproval from the international community. The world was still cautiously warming to the good general when September 2001 rolled around.
Within weeks of 11 September, Pakistan was once again a frontline state, and an indispensable ally to gallant beacons of justice in a historic ‘war on terror’. The rest of the story is predictable – it mimics all other stories of an imperialist power manipulating periphery countries to serve its own interests. The political ‘legitimacy’ offered to the Musharraf regime by the US and its allies translated into significant new dealings with international financial institutions (IFIs) and systematic attempts to reintegrate the Pakistani economy into the global financial fold.
Since the presidential referendum of April 2002, Musharraf has harped on the need for continuity in the economic policies that his government initiated. His commitments to bilateral and multilateral donors have garnered reciprocal support for the continuity of his regime. The IFIs and the US have been more than willing to overlook what even the European Union’s independent election monitoring mission termed a “seriously flawed” election process last winter. And so the LFO, basically a heist, has been accorded legitimacy by the true powers of this world.
This leaves the people of Pakistan to bear the consequences of whatever the LFO brings. The re-emergence of the rhetoric about the ineptitude of corrupt politicians, present whenever the military is running the government, illuminates the glaring shortcomings of mainstream politics in the country. Given the acute economic strain suffered by most people over the past few years due to policies intensified during Musharraf’s tenure, and the clear support that the military has offered to the US in its wars on Afghanistan and Iraq (in defiance of the people’s wishes), it would seem unlikely that the military could get away with imposing an order such as the LFO and still blame politicians for the country’s woes. Yet it does, as it has done in the past, and as it can be expected to do in the future.
This flagrant disregard for the popular will is possible because of the manner in which society has suffered fragmentation over the past few decades. The failure of the popular will to find political expression is no more evident than at the present time. While the opposition has maintained a reasonably principled stand on the LFO over the past six months, there has been limited effort to leverage mass support on the issue. It would not have been difficult to link political manipulations by the military to the economic difficulties facing ordinary Pakistanis, or for that matter to the military extremism of the United States.
The inability of the opposition to engage in mass agitation reflects two important facts. First, the religious parties, who dominate the current parliament, for all of the hue and cry over the years are not seriously interested in rocking the boat. If they were, their relatively large mobilisations would go beyond just sloganeering against the evil US empire. Second, the mainstream secular parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), are so discredited after years of politicking with the military that they are simply not able to mobilise the general public, as has been proven on the few occasions that they have tried to do so.
This being the case, it is the religious parties that would profit if the assemblies were dissolved. After all, were there to be elections again, the religious parties would benefit most from the anger of the general public against the secular parties. Such a situation would suit the military establishment as well, since the religious parties are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them.
An outcome of the national security paradigm of the state, and the oppression and deprivation that have come along with it, is the development of a typically reactionary brand of nationalist politics. In the debate over the LFO, nationalist politics does not necessarily come to the fore. However, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that there are deep divisions in the country’s politics, which are a function of the gradual fragmentation of society and the deep cultural divisions that such fragmentation engenders.
Politics for people
This is the dismal state of affairs facing the Pakistani people. The chances are that the assemblies will survive for now, and that the opposition will slowly but surely succumb to the LFO after all. It may succeed in successfully opposing one or two parts of the package, but rest assured that the powers of the president, and the overall chain of command that the LFO establishes, will be retained.
It is difficult to conceive a way out of this dysfunctional situation. Nevertheless, the first thing that must be emphasised is the sanctity of the democratic process. So long as the military is able to dictate the affairs of the state, the situation cannot improve. While it should not be expected that the US would not also manipulate a military-free political sphere, there can be no question about the fact that a consistently functioning electoral process would, at the very least, temper the ability of the US to hold Pakistan hostage to its own interests.
That being said, there should be no doubt that mainstream politics in this day and age offers very little to the losers of the system – and ordinary Pakistanis are definitely losers in the global capitalist order. Liberal democratic parties such as the PPP or the PML-N would likely toe the neoliberal line, even if the functional democratic process compelled them to be more careful about public interest than the military. All said and done, however, the first priority must still be to get rid of the military government, because until this happens, moving from a neoliberal order to a people’s democratic order is difficult to imagine.
How will this happen? It must be hoped that the counter-cultural current that has received impetus from the resurgent global anti-capitalist movement finds a stream here in Pakistan. It may take a while, but there is every reason to believe that Pakistanis will eventually catch the bug.