There is more to General Musharraf’s pro-West, anti-mullah stance than meets the eye. He seeks the overseas blessings to keep Pakistani democracy at bay.
Marking Pakistan’s fiftyfourth Independence Day on 14 August 2001, Chief of Army Stan and self-appointed President Pervez Musharraf unrolled a figurative “roadmap to democracy” that called for his military regime to oversee elections for the national and provincial assemblies and the Senate in October 2002. Musharraf proudly told his audience, a gathering of mayors elected under the military’s local-government plan, “today I have fulfilled one of my major promises: to hold elections within the time frame given by the Supreme Court”. In May 2000, the Court had upheld Musharraf’s coup as legitimate under the doctrine of state necessity, provided that elections were held within three years of the takeover.
Soon after, the 11 September attacks put Pakistan squarely in the frontline of the US-led ‘war on terror’. General Musharraf allied himself closely with the anti-terrorist coalition that the United States was building, thereby securing international acceptance for his bloodless putsch of October 1999 against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Much to his delight, even token international pressure for a return to civilian rule rapidly faded. ‘Democratic’ leaders from the United States and Europe descended on Islamabad to pay him homage for siding with the civilised world against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
Gen. Musharraf and his handpicked economic managers have hoped that the government, facing financial hemorrhage due to the war on its north-western frontier and a massive military mobilisation by India on its eastern flank, would receive substantial economic benefits in return for supporting the US. While the precise nature of the bailout that the Bush administration is offering is not clear, the general is not doing too badly. More International Monetary Fund loans are on the way; Washington has removed sanctions that were imposed after Pakistan followed India with its test of nuclear weapons in 1998; and also lifted were the so-called democracy sanctions put in place after the military coup under Section 508 of the US Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. Gen. Musharraf’s latest pilgrimage to Washington has fetched his regime debt relief to the tune of a billion US dollars, in addition to USD 100 million promised for education and USD 142 million in increased market access for Pakistani textile products.
Khaki Politics, “Mad” Mullahs
By siding with the US and declaring his intention to root out militant Islam within Pakistan, the Musharraf regime has irked religious hardliners who may count on the support of as much as a tenth of Pakistan’s 145 million population. The anger of these well-organised militants could pose a potent threat to the regime’s hold on power and the stability of the state. With the moderate opposition silent, the danger remains that Islamic fundamentalist parties could step in to fill the political vacuum. Not unexpectedly, the regime seemed visibly nervous in the face of aggressive pro- Taliban protests that had become common in major cities as well as the volatile Pashtun tribal belt of North West Frontier Province in the wake of the US military campaign in Afghanistan. To his ardent supporters in western capitals and the military’s ‘liberal apologists in Pakistan, Musharraf appears to be walking a tightrope between the urgent needs of the “War on Terror” and the radical opposition that he faces at home.
Are Islamabad’s chickens coming home to roost? For more than two decades, Pakistan’s religious right and its military establishment were natural allies. In the early 1980s, General Zia-ul Haq made calculated appeals to Islamists in order to gain their political support to buttress his own regime. Throughout the 1990s, the madrassas run by Islamic fundamentalist groups continued to supply the canon fodder for the “jihad” in Indian Kashmir. The military’s volte-face, under pressure from the US and India, appears to have rent asunder this unholy alliance between the generals and the mullahs, visibly enraging several Islamist groups operating in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and beyond. But might there be more to this mullah-military split than meets the eye?
Whatever else it might mean, the threat of Islamist rage does give Gen. Musharraf an opportunity to tighten his grip on power. Confident of his military’s ability to quell any serious threat to his regime, Musharraf seems to be playing the ‘mad mullah card’ to impress upon Washington his indispensability for providing stability to a nucleartipped Pakistan. He is thus able to demand — and get — unconditional support. In early October 2001, just hours before US warplanes began bombing Afghan targets, Musharraf fired or sidelined three hardline generals, including the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), in order to allay Western fears that officers sympathetic to the Taliban might be furtively impeding Islamabad’s efforts to support the United States. But with this top-level reshuffling, it should be noted, Musharraf also quietly removed from the scene the other ambitious generals who had helped him take power just over two years earlier.
In what is reminiscent of the political shenanigans of Gen. Zia, though certainly with different emphasis, Gen. Musharraf has often invoked divine sanction for his rule, never mincing words about his willingness to lead Pakistan indefinitely should the “national interest” so demand. In August 2001, he invoked the “supreme national interest” in the course of naming himself president of Pakistan. Two months later, on the very eve of the first US air strikes on Afghanistan, he extended his own tenure as the army’s Chief of Staff for an unlimited period. He has also repeatedly avowed his desire to amend the now-suspended 1973 Constitution in order to create the necessary balance of power among the various parts of the state structure, a clear indication that he would like to restore Article 58 (2) B (albeit in a modified form) that would give his position the power to dismiss the prime minister without dissolving the National Assembly.
Moreover, international desire to have a stable Pakistan before a democratic Pakistan has emboldened the general to further entrench the military’s involvement in politics. He may even have been preparing for such a move in July 2001 when he reconstituted the National Security Council (NSC). This supra-constitutiona1 body, dominated by senior military officers, is now in effect the highest decision-making body in Pakistan. The National Reconstruction Bureau’s electoral reforms package that more notably debars politicians from contesting elections based on arbitrarily determined educational qualifications (clearly in line with the military’s desire to supplant the existing political class with a cadre of “real” democrats) leaves little doubt that the roadmap which Gen. Musharraf loves to trumpet leads in reality to a system with an enfeebled National Assembly, managed by a pliant prime minister serving under a Constitution distorted to legitimise the actions of a military regime.
On the one hand, we have the general’s personal assurances that elections will be held on time, which have boosted hopes that he will indeed transfer power to a civilian government by October 2002. But hardheaded calculations of political advantage could make Gen. Musharraf, now ensconced atop the army hierarchy and a fast friend of Washington, break the promise of elections he made on the last Independence Day anniversary. Return to civilian rule would be made contingent on the military’s analysis of whether or not it would retain power, directly or behind the scenes. Given the unmistakable international preference for democracy, even in these days of fighting terror, the military clearly sees its political interests served best by transferring power to a weak civilian government. It could thus have its cake and eat it too, while the political evolution of Pakistani democracy would yet again be delayed by such a hiatus.
The signals emanating from Washington could be the key to understanding trends in South Asia. Will the United States re-impose democracy sanctions if Musharraf reneges on his commitment to free and fair elections? No one knows, but one has suspicions. On the surface, the USD 1billion debt relief offered to Islamabad has been made contingent on Congressional approval subject to free and open elections in October 2002. What constitutes a ‘free’ election would remains open to wide interpretation, of course, and there is little doubt that if the United States decides to condone — and in all likelihood it will — the regime’s manipulation of the political process, the generals will institutionalise their political role. Many of Pakistan’s out-of-work politicians see the hasty manner in which the US Congress waived these sanctions as an indication that a “martial democracy” is quite acceptable to Washington DC at this time. Raza Rabbani, general secretary of exiled former premier Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, couched his worry in blunter terms when he told this writer, ‘Pakistani democracy is dispensable. In the 1980s, when General Zia put democracy on hold, brutally suppressed human rights, and mutilated the Constitution, the US and its allies turned a deaf ear to our demands for democratic rule; they could do the same now.”
The second leg of the journey sketched out on Musharraf’s roadmap to democracy is underway with the delimitation of new constituencies and preparation of new voter rolls. As part of its strategic preparations for the return to civilian rule, the regime is actively propping up a broad coalition of promilitary political elements, including the breakaway faction of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in order to try and ensure a hung parliament in the next general elections. Gen. Musharraf has named a close confidante, Lt. General (retd) Khalid Maqbool, to take over a key slot as governor of the vote-rich Punjab. This is one clear signal that Gen. Musharraf intends to stage-manage next year’s general elections.
Through an ingenious local government plan, drafted and implemented with assistance from Pakistan’s external donors, the military has already created an extensive network of district governments, headed by powerful nazims (mayors) who are beholden to the General- President via the provincial governors, who actually have a decisive power over their removal. In a future civilian set-up, the “Nazim- Governor-President” troika is likely to function as a parallel system of government bypassing elected governments at the national and provincial levels. This “devolution of power” has also been predictably accompanied by the suppression of legitimate political activities at both the national and provincial levels since the coup of October 1999. Meanwhile, the Islamabad regime has deployed the infamous National Accountability Bureau to settle political scores and win over defectors from the ranks of the PPP and the PML-N. The goal is to win the regime more maneuvering room and a playing field tilted in its favor well in advance of the parliamentary balloting set for October 2002.
Soldiers are trained in the science of warfare, not the complex art of democracy. Force, conquest and armed combat are the army man’s chief preoccupations, for which the qualities of flexibility, compromise and political dialogue are not valued requirements. While most Pakistanis view the military’s role in politics as legitimate given the perpetual state of hostility with India, the army’s wide and growing political influence is clearly diluting the democratic process at a time when it should be strengthened in preparation for civilian rule. General Musharraf’s ‘benign’ military rule, too, has led to a forceful depoliticisation of the public arena, complete with unlawful jailing of political figures and ban on public rallies.
Democratic politics and civilian politicians have long been anathema to the military’s rigid institutional vision of how Pakistan should be governed. The Pakistani military remains acutely wary of the emergence of independent power centres that could pose a threat to its internal autonomy and its dominance of both state and society. The removal of successive civilian governments since 1989, including most recently the ouster of Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, must be seen in this broader context of the self-serving politics of an interventionist military. Many Pakistani analysts agree with what the Economist wrote in October 2000: that the Pakistani military is the problem to which it pretends to be the solution.
Despite the factionalised nature of Pakistan’s politics, there is now a consensus across the broad middle of the political spectrum that the basic structural fault in governance stems from the military’s consistent refusal to accept subordination to civilian authority. There is now a strong realisation among the key senior leaders of the two major parties of how their disunity on basic democratic issues contributed to today’s mess by encouraging the army to use undemocratic methods to divide the political opposition and rule with impunity. The only silver lining to the political situation today, in fact, is the emerging consensus within the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), comprising the mainstream political parties, on the future contours of civil- military relations in Pakistan as envisaged in the 1973 Constitution. But could this be a case of too little, too late?
The ARD, torn by competing rivalries and political interests, remains largely ineffectual. The military regime has blocked all its efforts to mobilise the public. The mainstream parties remain leaderless (with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharief both in exile) and marginalised despite the ARD, and seem to be in no position to fill the widening void in Pakistani politics. It is this political vacuum that could give the bold and vocal Islamic fundamentalist parties an opportunity to take maximum political advantage even as Musharraf tries to curb them.
Many moderate Pakistanis, including their self-appointed president, continue to take comfort from the claim that Islamic radicals have never been a significant force in electoral politics. They also point to the deep political and personal rivalries between the leaders of these groups. But the influence of the Islamic parties in the national polity go beyond their vote-garnering capability. The Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s biggest and best-organised Islamic party, and others have mounted large public demonstrations openly calling for Musharraf’s overthrow. Their ability to muddy the political waters should not be under-estimated. Moreover, under military rule, the country’s federal units feel powerless in the face of what is seen to be a Punjabi-dominated army. The absence of representative mechanisms therefore puts a double premium on language, religion, and ethnicity as tools of political bargaining. Given the military’s track record in manipulating elections, other analysts fear that general elections run by a partisan military could give the extremists the opportunity to cry foul if the results are not to their liking. They might then exploit their street-level muscle to gain a share of official power, especially if the economy is at meltdown. On the other hand, there remains the possibility that the military will benefit from an Islamic-extremist presence in the future parliament. This would provide it with the third force to use against the PPP, which is the party the generals dislike the most.
Back to Square One
Though a muteness born of disarray besets both the two large mainstream parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the main tussle for power ahead of the October polls is likely to be between these mainstream parties and the military establishment. While 11 years of “sham democracy” did give civilian politicians a chance to chip away at the military’s zealously guarded control over national security and foreign policy, the soldiers seem to have reversed those civilian gains in one stroke with the 1999 coup. If and when democracy is restored, civilian governments will have to work within bounds set by a president who is also the onactive- duty chief of army staff.
When Pervez Musharraf seized power, most Pakistanis welcomed his coup in the hope that the military would institute long-awaited structural reforms to put Pakistan back on track. Musharraf swiftly laid out an ambitious reform agenda aimed at recovering defaulted loans from the country’s industrialists and politicians, reviving the economy, controlling corruption, depoliticising institutions, and devolving political power to the grassroots. In its third year in power, this challenge has hardly been dented, and the army does seem unsuited to the task of governing or reforming Pakistan however pious the intentions. The drive against corruption has so far mostly targeted the regime’s political opponents, leaving out military officers and judges. Structural reforms, announced with much fanfare, remain either half-implemented or stalled as the regime drags its feet on policy changes that would threaten special-interest groups that remain powerful even under khaki rule. And the highly touted devolution- of-power plan, despite the unprecedented administrative changes introduced in its wake, has so far amounted to little more than a cleverly crafted rehash of previous military experiments with local bodies.
Ironically, liberal sections of the Pakistani public and intelligentsia are still counting on the military to deliver the elusive desideratum of good governance. In this misplaced optimism, they continue to forget that Pakistan’s crisis of governance stems in large part from the formidable political power and influence of an autonomous military establishment, with its clear corporate interests, superimposed on civil and political society. The military’s entrenched hegemony over civilian affairs has largely dictated the do’s and dont’s of government in Pakistan for more than 50 years. While it is true that civilian governments in post-Zia Pakistan did make matters worse, they had little policy space to manoeuver in the face of overwhelming constraints imposed by an overbearing military establishment working at odds with its civilian bosses, as it pursued its own political, security and foreign policy agendas.
Pakistan’s long-term political stability and real institutional reform depend on the restoration of an uninterrupted democratic process. Sold to domestic and world opinion as urgent steps taken to restore stability in the short run, military interventions undermine stability in the long run by signaling that the world of civilian political give-and-take can go forward only as long as the generals say it can. No single group, be it the military officer corps, the politicians or the bureaucratic elite, can or will reform Pakistan on its own. Sustained reforms will require public pressure exerted through representative public institutions. Only by embedding democracy into society can the capacity and incentives for reform be created. The long-term governance gains from political democracy, though uncertain and reversible, will far outweigh any short-term gains in administrative efficiency that might accrue from military-style surgical measures.
For now, Pakistanis will have to brace themselves for another long period of autocracy backed by the world’s Superpower. Emboldened by the Bush administration’s fondness for General Musharraf’s “terrific” leadership, the soldiers are likely to return Pakistan to elective rule strictly on their own terms. This was not unexpected, but the events of 11 September and the US-led coalition’s unflinching support for the military regime in their aftermath have decisively tilted the civil-military equation in the military’s favour and now afford Musharraf a better opportunity to carry out his political agenda with little crosscheck or control.
General-president Musharraf, heading the military and a powerful NSC, seems poised to guide future prime ministers through their tenures in the “supreme national interest”. Any elected prime minister who dares to stray will be shown the exit. If the mainstream political parties do not stand their ground, the Pakistan’s next civilian experiment promises to be yet another praetorian farce perpetrated in the name of “real democracy” – in essence, a repeat of the post-1989 musical chairs, with the generals deciding who gets which seat.