Pakistan: Status Quo or Democracy Through the Back Door?


Rana Ganguly

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf reminds one of the proverbial cat with nine lives. He is indeed a great survivor. To have survived for over eight years as military dictator of a nation that is perilously close to meeting all the qualifications of a failed state, this commando general certainly scales new heights in survival skills.

When he grabbed power by deposing the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the backdrop of the infamous Kargil war with India in a coup, not many would have given him more than a few months in the saddle. Kargil, reportedly initiated by Musharraf without the knowledge or support of Nawaz Sharif failed to achieve its intended objective and cost many lives on both sides and set back the peace momentum built up by Sharif and his Indian counterpart - A. B. Vajpayee. Had Sharif continued as Prime Minister, it would have cost Musharraf his job and political career (that he aspired to all along) since he would be held accountable for the Kargil misadventure. However, the support from the elite officer corps of the Pakistan armed forces and, in particular, the notorious intelligence wing, ISI, ensured that Musharraf survived after ousting Sharif and continued to control the destiny of his country as a military dictator for nearly a decade that followed.

Musharraf has been clever in justifying his dictatorship as a means to an end-restoration of democracy. He has intelligently cashed in on the people's disaffection with corruption and the ineffective leadership of the democratically elected leaders and bought time by stressing on the need for patience in order to rebuild conducive conditions that support the restoration of democracy. He has also at times made some right moves which have helped bring about relative economic stability and to some extent mended relations with India after Kargil. In the meanwhile he has ensured that he himself sets the pace and chooses the time to call for elections. However, his handling of the Baluchi separatist movement and the killing of the Baluchi leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, nearly precipitated another Bangladesh-like secession before he moved to contain the damage.

While one cannot condone his hanging on to power at any cost one cannot but help acknowledge his political astuteness and admire his luck. He has cleverly forestalled the development of a credible democratic leadership to further his own gains. There has been many a time in the last eight years when his departure seemed imminent because of the series of crises (most of his own making) that his country has faced including attempts on his life. However, he has shown nerves of steel while facing these and eventually managed to resolve them.

His detractors and myriad political and security analysts accuse him of playing multiple double games. While claiming to be the US biggest ally in the war on terror, he has been accused of being half-hearted in his commitment to deal ruthlessly with the Al-Qaeda and Taliban elements that have reportedly been hosted and launched by the ISI in tribal regions near the Afghan border. He has been issued ultimatums by the US (including the threat to attack terrorists in Pakistani territory from across the border) unless he proved that he was serious in containing this menace. In response he has at times protested innocence and reminded the US that this would breach Pakistan's sovereignty and further alienate his people who were already angered by the ill-treatment meted out to Muslims in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. He has played his cards well and tried to revive the peace process with India through a combination of cricket diplomacy, trade initiatives, people-to-people contacts and personal visits while the ISI has continued to support the terrorists to launch attacks on vulnerable Indian targets in Kashmir and elsewhere. The Indian government, while not trusting him completely, has been happy to play along in the hope of marginal gains. While playing these games, he has often seemed to run out of ideas and then drawn a new rabbit out of his hat to the complete surprise of his watchers.

The conservative and fundamentalist sections of Pakistan's politics from which he derived his initial support have gradually turned against him accusing him of toeing the US line. During the last two years the beleaguered President has faced sustained resistance from the lawyers, the judiciary and the political opposition that has demanded restoration of democracy and his abandoning the uniform whenever he has expressed his desire to fight elections while remaining in power. Earlier this year, he lost his battle against the suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Jehangir Chaudhary who had to be reinstated but hopes to win the war by having the judiciary rule in favour of his eligibility to run for election in uniform. In the face of stiff opposition from most political parties he succeeded in closing a political deal reportedly brokered by the US involving the sharing of power with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in return for an amnesty on all pending corruption charges against her and allowing her to return to Pakistan. This enabled him to win the recent elections quite easily as most Opposition parties boycotted the elections. Bhutto has since returned and survived an assassination attempt that cost over a hundred lives. While her credibility remains at an all-time low, the winner from this deal is Musharraf who has also been able to keep Nawaz Sharif, his biggest threat, out of the equation by sending him back to exile in Saudi Arabia. He also continues to enjoy the support of some of the smaller parties as well as the MQM (Altaf Hussain) which is an important player that could tilt the balance of power in electoral arithmetic. While the Opposition may term the recent elections as 'farcical' and unconstitutional, Musharraf still continues to wield the baton and intimidate the judiciary. Human Rights watchdogs allege that should the Supreme Court rule his election illegal, the military will suspend the constitution, clamp martial law and sack the judges. In anticipation of winning over the judiciary he has also planned wisely for a secure term as president after abandoning the uniform. He has chosen some of his loyal supporters for the roles of the Chiefs of Defence Forces and the ISI, respectively. However, those who know the volatile history of Pakistani politics at the apex level will not bet on them remaining loyal to him.

WATCHPOINT: Can Musharraf sustain the existing threats to his leadership? Will the Supreme Court rule in his favour? If it does, will his presidency last a full term after he gives up his uniform?


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