Pakistan: farewell to democracy

Shaun Gregory
3 November 2007

Just a few months ago the spin sounded so persuasive: the Pakistan military was weary and bruised and looking to take a back seat in politics, President Pervez Musharraf had run out of friends in Washington due to his lack of progress in the "war on terror", Pakistan was sliding violently towards the edge of the abyss and its people were crying out for democracy.

Enter stage left Benazir Bhutto, the exiled (and allegedly corrupt) former prime minister resurrected as a political player in Pakistan by months of assiduous lobbying on Capitol Hill. The notion occurs to someone in the United States administration to concoct a wholly artificial deal which will reconcile Musharraf and Bhutto after years of mutual antipathy, allowing the general to stay on as a civilian president and Bhutto to again become prime minister - both outcomes incidentally requiring changes to the apparently endlessly pliable Pakistan constitution.

The benign spin continues: with Bhutto's immense political support, with a rebalancing of the presidential-prime ministerial relationship, with the assured backing of the army following the US-backed reshuffle of senior commanders, and with Pakistan's newly assertive and independent supreme court acting as referee, Musharraf's political base will be broadened and Pakistan's secular- pluralist forces will be united against the anti-western Islamist currents which threaten Pakistan. This new dispensation, widely labelled a "democratic transition", will usher in a new phase of civilian rule in Pakistan, stabilising the situation, defeating extremism and terrorism, and providing an important stepping-stone towards real democracy in the future.

A military in charge

It did not take long for the story to begin to unravel. The first threads were exposed when Nawaz Sharif, another of Pakistan's exiled former leaders, made an ill-judged attempt to return to Pakistan on 10 September 2007 (against the wishes, rather unusually publicly expressed, of Saudi Arabia). Sharif was promptly tricked into boarding a plane at Islamabad which he thought was headed for Karachi but was flown instead to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, a move that was clearly pre-planned by Riyadh and Washington. Nawaz was not to be allowed to spoil the Musharraf-Bhutto deal, a point underlined by the high-level US state department delegation which visited Pakistan a few days later to finalise its elements.

On 18 September, lawyers for President Musharraf said that he would take off his uniform, thereby relinquishing the post of chief of the army staff, but only after he was re-elected as president for five more years. In the teeth of a storm of opposition which claimed that his re-election while still in uniform was illegal and unconstitutional, Musharraf - winning all but five votes cast in both houses of Pakistan's parliament - was reconfirmed in office on 6 October.

This election, boycotted by opposition parties, was widely seen as corrupt and undemocratic. The parliament which voted to extend Musharraf's period in office was itself constituted as long ago as 2002, in a process widely seen at the time as rigged by Musharraf. The supreme court has yet to rule on the legality of Musharraf standing while still in uniform, though since its defiance of the president over his suspension of chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in March 2007 it has reverted to pro-military supplication, and seems very unlikely now to find against Musharraf's re-election.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Maruf Khwaja, "The Islamisation of Pakistan" (12 April 2006)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Musharraf's predicament, Pakistan's agony" (5 September 2006)

Irfan Husain, "How democracy works in Pakistan" (29 September 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (29 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (16 May 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan signals red" (5 July 2007 )

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: the enemy within" (30 July 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's poker-game" (14 September 2007)

On 21 September, Musharraf reshuffled the most senior army posts. He appointed two trusted personal allies to key positions: Nadeem Taj to be director-general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and Mohsin Kamal to head the 10th Rawalpindi Corps. The latter is critical because it is this corps which has historically mounted coups against the civilian leaderships in Pakistan, based just eighteen kilometres down the road in Islamabad. Musharraf followed with another important move on 2 October: the appointment of Ashfaq Kayani (the ISI's former director-general) to be the deputy chief of army staff, and the man thus earmarked to succeed Musharraf if he is forced to relinquish his uniform.

A leader in knots

These three appointments, and Musharraf's new term of office as president, seem certain to underwrite the decisive role of the Pakistan military in Pakistani politics for the foreseeable future (see Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army is the state", 11 April 2007). In no small part this is because of an obscure clause in the constitution - 58 (2b) - which gives the president power to dismiss prime ministers and to dissolve parliaments. The removal of this clause to rebalance presidential-prime ministerial powers was part of Bhutto's demands, but the signs are that this has not and will not be agreed. As the deal stands, the Pakistan military will retain control of foreign policy, of defence policy, of internal security, and will remain in a position to defend its expanded role in Pakistan's economy and civilian institutions (see Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis", 16 May 2007). In a society such as Pakistan, and in the context of the "war on terror", that leaves precious little for the prime-ministerial purview.

Many conclude therefore, that despite the rhetoric Bhutto's return is much more about her desire to be rehabilitated nationally and internationally and to have corruption charges against her and her family in Pakistan dropped than about her personal desire to see democracy in Pakistan restored. Her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) despite its historic slogan of "bread, clothes and shelter" is not presenting a credible manifesto for economic redistribution, health and welfare for Pakistan's poor. Rather it is engaged in the politics of patronage, a constant theme of discussion among Pakistan's journalists and intellectuals.

But even were it to be accepted that Bhutto's inclinations are democratic, there is little prospect of her realising any such ambitions. Her return to Karachi on 18 October attracted huge numbers along her triumphant procession- route, but by the time the suicide-bombers struck around midnight in a well-timed and well-planned attack, the perhaps million-strong crowd had dwindled to fewer than 20,000. Soon after the bombs, a shocked Bhutto accused leading figures around Pakistan's former military ruler Zia ul-Haq of co-responsibility with religious extremists. Certainly there are still many such figures who remain deeply antagonistic to her and close to the militants, but her comments - after being absent from Pakistan during its last eight tumultuous years - made many question whether she was fighting yesterday's battles.

Many rumours of government complicity circulated in the aftermath of the Karachi attacks (among them the failure of the Pakistan government to protect Benazir, the coordinated switching-off of street-lighting along the procession route, the control of Karachi by the pro-Musharraf Muttahida-Quami-Movement [MQM]). The atmosphere of suspicion made Musharraf's refusal to accept Bhutto's call for international investigation of the attacks look defensive. But the more important consequence has been the government decision to ban large political gatherings on security grounds, a move that will surely affect the ability of the PPP and others to campaign for the parliamentary elections due in early 2008.

At the cliff-edge

In any event, even assuming the smooth unfolding of the terms of the deal with Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto is far from guaranteed a significant electoral result. The Pakistan military and intelligence services will certainly (as in the past) work to undermine electoral support for the PPP and try to influence the size of its mandate: sufficient to endorse Musharraf in a subsequent vote of confidence, but not large enough to dominate parliament.

If the strategy works, the options then all play into the military's hands. If Bhutto is weak or is forced into an alliance with the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League - Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) and its allies she will be neutered as a political force, even within her limited purview; if Nawaz Sharif is allowed to return (as now seems likely - though perhaps later rather than sooner to retard his own political fortunes) then a political free-for-all will likely paralyse parliament, leaving the military to continue running the country.

Meanwhile, in the wings stand the Islamist political parties. They are usually dismissed as a political force in Pakistan on the grounds both of their poor showing in pre-2002 elections and the supposedly moderate nature of Pakistan's polity. This time, however, the Islamists may surprise. The broad coalition of Islamist parties brought together under the MMA umbrella to shore up Musharraf in 2002 were significantly empowered precisely by Musharraf's support. Today they are offering to Pakistanis a manifesto of economic redistribution, healthcare, and welfare under the banner of Islam.

The Islamist parties may yet benefit from disillusion with the PPP over the fact that Bhutto has done a deal with Musharraf and his American masters, and reap the rewards of widespread antipathy in Pakistan towards the United States, the war on terror, and Nato's presence in the region. Their own ambitions for Pakistan cannot be termed democratic, but their role in the country's current political predicament cannot be ignored.

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