The Political Endgame in Pakistan

11 October 2007
The hopes that the Pakistani Supreme Court would turn into a bulwark of democracy was badly betrayed when it dismissed a clutch of petitions challenging Gen Pervez Musharraf’s candidature in the Presidential election.
Strange are the ways of the Pakistan establishment! Many democratically-minded Pakistanis came to place a great deal of faith in the Supreme Court after it reinstated the unfairly sacked Mr Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and affirmed the right of exiled former prime minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif to return home. But their hope that the Court would turn into a bulwark of democracy was badly betrayed when it dismissed a clutch of petitions challenging Gen Pervez Musharraf’s candidature in the Presidential election. As this is written, the Court is hearing yet more petitions just before the election, scheduled for October 6. Meanwhile, Ms Benazir Bhutto has reportedly struck a collusive deal with Gen Musharraf, under which all corruption cases filed against her between 1985 and October 1999 will be dropped, while she will tacitly support his re-election as the President. The Court’s September 28 six-versus-three judgement upheld an egregious decision of the Election Commission. By making an arbitrary exception for Gen Musharraf, this decision flagrantly manipulated the rules, which forbid anyone who holds an office of profit, from contesting elections for two years. This was manifestly bad in law. The verdict also ducked the issue of constitutionality of Gen Musharraf’s dual offices. The dual office issue raises questions about the lack of separation of powers essential to any half-way respectable modern constitution. It deserved the Court’s critical scrutiny. But the Court dismissed the petitions on procedural grounds. We still don’t know its rationale, but we do know that five of the six judges who gave the majority verdict had also justified the General’s coup. Evidently, the All Parties’ Democratic Movement (APDM), led by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the “moderately Islamic” Muttahid Majlis-e-Amal, unwisely put all its eggs in the Court’s basket. It should have understood that its judgment in Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry’s case was driven less by its new-found respect for constitutional democracy than by a concern to defuse the lawyers’ powerful agitation for his reinstatement. The Supreme Court’s failure to give effect to its own judgement on Mr Sharif’s right to return also revealed its reluctance to avoid a head-on confrontation with the army. It seems fair to conclude that Pakistan’s democratic institutions are far too feeble and compromised by prolonged interference by the military to be relied upon to uphold constitutional principle. Similarly, its mainstream parties are not yet mature, strong or willing enough to initiate the process towards full democratisation. This raises what might be called a “chicken-and-egg” problem. How can Pakistan make a much-needed transition to full civilian democracy while its political and juridical institutions are weak? And yet, how can its institutions facilitate (or at least not obstruct) that transition in the face of authoritarian pressures to compromise themselves - just to survive? This has also triggered a vigorous domestic debate between the “transitionists” (who stand for gradual democratisation with military approval), and the “transformationists” (who want radical change while drastically reducing the army’s influence). There are no easy answers here. But it is clear that the moral and political pressure of a mass mobilisation for democracy, alone can cut this ‘Gordian knot’ assuredly. Had the PML(N) sustained its mass campaign in support of Mr Sharif’s right to return after he was deported to Saudi Arabia on September 10, things would have evolved differently. But Mr Sharif did not have the gumption to stage a dramatic protest at the Islamabad airport. Nor did his party inspire large numbers into action. At any rate, the second round in the fight for democracy has been lost. But this isn’t the last round. There is likely to be a third, fourth, perhaps a fifth round. A new one may have begun with the Benazir-Musharraf deal and the announcement that Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani will succeed Gen Musharraf as Chief of the Army Staff. On what terms the fight for democracy is joined and how it is played out will be decided largely by four factors: the strategies and tactics of political parties, the role of the higher judiciary, the mood of the masses and last but not the least, the calculations of the United States. Although Pakistan’s parties are badly divided, the APDM, at least, seems determined to try to discredit the presidential election by getting its Members of the National Assembly (MNA) and the provincial assemblies to resign. It has collected more than 200 signatures of lawmakers and submitted 85 resignations by MNAs. It also wants to dissolve the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) Assembly, where the MMA rules, thus denying representative legitimacy to the presidential election. However, “the King’s Party”, the PML(Q), has tried to throw a spanner in the works by moving a no-confidence motion against the NWFP government, thus attempting to prevent the assembly’s dissolution. A potential spoiler is the Jamiut-ul-Ulema’s Mr Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who is inclined to play both sides of the street - in particular, maintain his party’s alliance with the PML(Q) in Baluchistan. Perhaps, an even greater negative is Ms Bhutto, who leads Pakistan’s biggest political party, about whom more later. Pakistan’s higher judiciary has been literally thrust to the centrestage - because political parties have raised legal-constitutional disputes. Now that Gen Musharraf has indicated that he may be willing to shed his uniform before the presidential election - which may be seen as a sign of weakness - the Supreme Court could feel emboldened to take certain proactive measures, just as it did on October 1 in an order directing the suspension of Islamabad’s senior police officers for their strong-arm methods against demonstrating lawyers and journalists. Popular opinion has turned strongly against the army. Another eruption of public protest would destroy what little is left of its legitimacy. Recent surveys show that 55 to 62 per cent of respondents want Gen Musharraf to quit as army chief before the presidential elections. His public approval ratings have dipped to just 34 per cent from 60 per cent in mid-2006. As many as 58 per cent give the government “poor” or “very poor” marks; 56 per cent say they feel less safe than a year ago. The judiciary cannot remain unaffected by such public sentiment. Amidst this situation, the US role could become overwhelmingly important. Obsessed with its global war on terror, Washington continues to favour the Pakistan Army strongly over civilian leaders. Gen Musharraf’s recent overtures to the US, and Gen Kiyani’s appointment, are designed to strengthen this relationship. ‘Newsweek’ describes Gen Kiyani as “smart, tough, talented - and pro-Western” and as the preferred choice of western military officials. More important, the US is brokering a deal between Gen Musharraf and Ms Bhutto, who has been assiduously wooing Washington with offers of allowing international agencies to interrogate Dr A Q Khan and letting US troops conduct an attack within Pakistan targeting Osama bin Laden. By entering into a shady, opportunist, self-serving deal with the General, which does nothing to limit the military’s role, Ms Bhutto would violate the Charter of Democracy which she signed with Mr Sharif in May, which states: “We shall not join the military regime or any military-sponsored government. No party shall solicit the support of the military to come into power …” As this column has always argued, India has a long-term stake in a democratic, stable Pakistan which reins in the military and its secret services, which enjoy “state-within-the-state” autonomy and harbour strong anti-India prejudice. Indeed, a democratised Pakistan is the best guarantee of South Asia’s future as a peaceful, prosperous and harmonious region. Democratisation will offer India an opportunity to demilitarise its relations with Pakistan, permanently. It will also help contain communal prejudices and forces in this country. These are no mean gains. Can we afford to forfeit them?