It has been eight years since General Pervez Musharraf first woke up to the need for political legitimacy to bolster his military rule. It turns out that he need not have worried, what with the history of America’s support for military dictators in Pakistan, and the ‘war on terror’ raging along the northern border. While that alone was enough to keep him entrenched in power as Pakistan descended into the maw of extremism and internal conflict, there was always the mild irritant of the need to ‘return to democracy’.
Gen Musharraf nonetheless remains the West’s (read: the US) “best option” in a nuclear Pakistan besieged by extremists, even as at home he is largely viewed as an American stooge. His ratings have hit rock-bottom in the wake of a series of difficulties: military operations in the restive tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, suppression of the insurgency in Balochistan with bombs, a spate of suicide bombings (38 in the first nine months of this year, killing more than 350), and constitutional and judicial crises erupting from increasingly desperate bids to cling to power.
Against the backdrop of the presidential and parliamentary elections currently slated for early October, the general’s choices of ways to stay in command have shrunk to a single option: seek reconciliation with popular political forces, something he was loathe to do all along. But to do this, Gen Musharraf has to allow concessions that would considerably weaken his position vis-à-vis the political opposition. The alternatives – to fall back on the unpopular ruling party that opinion polls say will be routed in the upcoming elections, or to impose a state of emergency or martial law – would only bring him face to face with the nightmare of illegitimacy once again. In a country riding high on judicial and media activism, and fed up with the insecurity that comes with fighting someone else’s war, no referendum is going to keep Gen Musharraf afloat this time. Nor, for that matter, will a state of emergency or martial law quiet the media or lock up the judiciary. It is not much fun being Pervez Musharraf these days.
Following the 2002 elections, the two-thirds majority that Gen Musharraf needed to amend the Constitution was readily provided by a combination of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Q), comprised largely of defectors from Nawaz Sharif’s party, and the religious parties. This allowed the general to stay simultaneously as president and chief of army staff – until now. Gen Musharraf’s dual role has been particularly helpful to the US’s push for a security agenda in the region following the attacks of 11 September 2001.
But now Washington, DC wants both Musharraf and democracy in Pakistan, which means Musharraf sharing power with mainstream political forces that are more in tune with a liberal vision for Pakistan. As such, the general is required to doff the uniform and seek re-election as president, a constitutional condition with which he has agreed to comply. The problem is that, since his support comes largely from a military constituency that wants to keep the army in power, he cannot simply do away with the uniform, even though he is due for retirement in November. As such, being a head of state without havingt he clout of a chief of army staff would reduce the general to a lame-duck president.
The PML (Q) is happy to support Gen Musharraf, but the opposition wants him out. Once again, he needs a two-thirds majority for a constitutional amendment to continue occupying the two offices. But he can no longer depend on the PML (Q), whose waning popularity stems directly from his own. Meanwhile, the Islamist opposition alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which helped him amend the Constitution in December 2003, has now challenged his holding of two offices in the Supreme Court. As the alliance in power in NWFP and Balochistan, the MMA has been particularly antagonised by the recent military operations in the tribal areas. Now it is siding with the popular opposition led by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) – and against Gen Musharraf.
What, no uniform?
Under the circumstances, hemmed in by his military peers and challenged by angry opponents and allies-turned-enemies, Gen Musharraf has no choice but to clutch at the lifeline thrown him by Benazir Bhutto, leader of the mainstream Pakistan People’s Party. This would seem to be a mutually beneficial alliance: the general needs Bhutto’s support for the constitutional amendment, while she needs him to change the law that bans a third term for a prime minister. While she’s at it, Bhutto also wants the general to drop all cases of corruption against her.
All of which calls for a deal, and one has been long in the making, with the two camps engaged in endless rounds of brinkmanship. Meanwhile, the PML (Q) is furious at Gen Musharraf for unceremoniously dumping it for a political opponent that is sure to rout them in elections. There have been defections, with politicians from the ruling party going back to the PML (Nawaz), a party they deserted to join Gen Musharraf in the first place, when he sent Sharif into his first exile in 2000.
If a deal with Bhutto does not happen – and discussions have stalled often due to Gen Musharraf’s reluctance to give up his sweeping powers – the PML (Nawaz) is likely to emerge victorious in the next elections. This is especially so now that Sharif is seen to be a martyr in the battle for democracy, having been shunted off to a second exile almost immediately after he returned from seven years in the Saudi wilderness. Such a scenario would be anathema not only to Gen Musharraf but also to the US, which orchestrated his deportation to Saudi Arabia – which has been dubbed the ‘Gitmo for Pakistani politicians’ – against the people’s will.
Meanwhile, Bhutto’s popularity has been seriously dented by the news of her dealings with Musharraf. Adding to her declining image is Sharif’s stand against the general, as well as his ability to bring together a movement for restoring democracy, which Bhutto’s party has shied away from. While Nawaz has appealed to the court for reprieve, and is very likely to receive it, Bhutto is clearly being seen as the villain by Pakistan’s revived civil society, media and judiciary. Meanwhile, she has tried to distance herself from Gen Musharraf by hitting hard against his allies for advising him to contest presidential elections without doffing his army uniform and refusing to share power. But it will take more than huffing and puffing to reverse the damage already done to her. The only way to make amends is for Bhutto to throw her weight behind the popular opposition to bolster its street power, in order to oust the president-general.
The opposition has threatened resignations from assemblies to thwart Gen Musharraf’s attempt to get himself re-elected as a uniformed president. While the Supreme Court is set to decide whether the Constitution allows for such a re-election in the first place, mass resignations, which may lead to mass protests, could yet again bring Gen Musharraf face to face with the demons of a dictator’s legitimacy.
Gen Musharraf may have bundled off Nawaz Sharif for a Saudi holiday for another three years, but the general’s troubles can only escalate. By expelling Sharif, contrary to a Supreme Court ruling that allowed him to return, the general has set himself on a collision course with a judiciary that is still rankling over his suspension of the country’s chief justice, Ifitikhar Chaudhry, in March. Nawaz’s subsequent challenge of his deportation is not the only case giving the general sleepless nights, however. The struggle for democracy that started with the streets has come to the courts. There is currently a series of cases against Gen Musharraf that the Supreme Court is shuffling through in short order, only the latest of which challenges his holding of dual offices.
It is a battle of wits, this confrontation between the executive and the judiciary, wherein political moves are played to counter legal and constitutional procedures. The Election Commission, widely considered a handmaiden of the incumbent regime, recently amended the election rules in order to facilitate Gen Musharraf’s re-election. It overrode the constitutional condition that forbids a person holding a public office from contesting presidential elections. The move was clearly meant to give the general a reprieve, should the Supreme Court decide against the holding of two offices.
A beleaguered Gen Musharraf subsequently went a step further, telling the court that he would doff the uniform if he were to be re-elected from the present assemblies. This was clearly a political move aimed at pacifying the opposition against a uniformed president, while it mocks the legal and constitutional provisions on the basis of which cases were filed against him in the first place. The presidential camp says the general took the decision because “he wants to follow the Constitution and rule of law in letter and spirit.” However, it seems the Constitution only became sacrosanct after the Supreme Court took up the case against him.
In the confusion of the tussle between the government, opposition and civil society, it is important to remember that the current situation in Pakistan is not just a fight about bringing (or maintaining) one person to power. Rather, it has to do with the hold of one institution – the military – over power and politics in the country. There is no way that the military will let go of the supremacy it currently enjoys without a dramatic fight. Gen Musharraf, by virtue of being a uniformed president (and fighting to maintain that status), has come to epitomise this power struggle between the military authority and civilian institutions. Any decision by the Supreme Court that would weakens the general’s – and by extension, the army’s – hold on power will not go down easily with the military establishment.
If all else fails, there is still the option of martial law to reassert that hold. Imposing martial law would cut down to size the Supreme Court, muzzle the emboldened media, and do away with the nuisance of the political opposition. The only negative is that it would bring a bad name to Pakistan, though that has certainly not kept the generals from exercising such an option, repeatedly, in the past.
The only losers in such a scenario would be the people of Pakistan, as the generals and politicians would be given a free hand to pursue self-interests in their name. What the people need is a free and fair election, untrammelled by ambitious president-generals and wheeler-dealer politicians, so that once again Pakistani citizens can realise that long-lost condition – democracy and people’s rule. Meanwhile, as Gen Musharraf goes about ever-more desperate manoeuvres to remain in power, the country groans under an acute food shortage during the ascetic month of Ramadan.
~ Aurangzaib Khan writes from Peshawar.