Does democracy have a chance in the country’s near-future?

By Sohail Mahmood (for Safe Democracy)

Sohail Mahmood comments on Pakistan‘s complex political situation, noting growing tensions between a public calling for democracy and a military regime willing to go to any lengths to hold onto its power. He offers that fair elections would be the only solution to the country’s political instability.

Sohail Mahmood is the Associate Dean of the Department of International Relations at Preston University in Islamabad. With a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northern Arizona University, he is one of the leading experts in the world on Musharraf and Pakistan and has published dozens of books and articles on the issue.

APPARENTLY, THE MILITARY REGIME IN PAKISTAN intends to stay in power by all means. The brass supports President General Pervez Musharraf in his dual role as president and army chief. Meanwhile, the opposition parties and the legal community are challenging General Musharraf’s constitutional authority as head of state. But the generals had very recently determined “to ensure that the nation continues on the path of socio-economic development and carries on its mission to rid society of the scourge of extremism”. This endorsement had clearly implied unconditional support by the military brass for President Musharraf’s political aims. However, this was not acceptable as it is not the business of the military to rule any country.

Pakistanis yearn for democracy and the military regime is denying them of their fundamental right to freely choose their own leaders. Pakistan can only exist as a democracy under an Islamic framework. Nothing else can bring stability to a country as complex as Pakistan. Of course, democracy is itself a cherished value and is clearly the primary aspiration of the Pakistanis. We do not want economic stability alone and that too under a military dictatorship. Pakistan has been ruled by military for a long time.

There have been three long spells of military rule. These extended military rules have crippled the country’s political system beyond measure. Previously, General Ayub Khan’s rule (1958-1969) gave an outward stability that proved largely fleeting. There was then a brief interregnum of another military rule. In 1969, army Chief General Yahya took over from General Khan and his spell of bad governance proved fatal to the country. After a bitter civil war, East Pakistan broke away in 1972 to become Bangladesh. General Zia-ul Haq ruled for 11 years from 1977 to 1988. His legacy was no better than Ayub Khan’s. The military failed again to provide the country with a workable political system. And in any event, Zia-ul Haq’s rule did not have the support of the people. His dictatorship, like that of Khan, was a massive failure. Meanwhile, Zia’s arbitrary changes made in the 1973 Constitution left the country in the political wilderness.

Today Pakistan is ruled again by the military. General Musharraf came to power and went ahead to reintroduce General Haq’s expedient provisions in the Constitution, including the controversial Article 28 2(b) which had given him the right to dismiss an elected prime minister and dissolve the National Assembly.

Incidentally, it was the very National Assembly that had passed this constitutional amendment much to the chagrin of democracy lovers in the country. It also bears mentioning that the Supreme Court had upheld the military rule as legal under the infamous doctrine of necessity. So much for checks and balances in Pakistan. While, the people want General Musharraf out, he will most probably be able to weather this particular storm.

Given the support of the powerful Establishment, there is every possibility that President Musharraf may outlive the present governance crisis. But that does not mean to suggest that Pakistan will be better off. It won’t be, and that is certain.

Although, there have been economic development in the past eight years or so of General Musharraf’s rule, there is still massive poverty in the country and bad governance is the norm, not the exception. Despite the support by Western powers, the military rule is proving to be a curse on Pakistan’s development. We can have political stability in the country if and only when the military regime gives up power in favor of a civilian dispensation. Only a national government composed of all political parties, at least the bigger ones, can provide political stability to Pakistan.

It is a given that only periodic, free and fair elections can provide real political stability to Pakistan. This will happen only if General Musharraf and military officials realize that continued military rule is going to prove catastrophic for the country.

It is beyond the present military regime to provide political stability to Pakistan. The military regime simply does not have what it takes to provide good governance to the nation. Given the complexity in Pakistan, it is beyond the capacity of the military Establishment to continue ruling Pakistan effectively. We implore the Musharraf regime to ensure that the early 2008 general elections are held in a free and fair manner. As the saying goes, elections should not only be fair and free but also deemed fair and free. But tragically, the Musharraf regime plans to fix the next parliamentary elections.

Most importantly, the next general elections will only take place after the existing parliament has elected General Musharraf as president for another term. If this development takes place, it will lead to much greater instability. The legacy of military rule shall continue to plague the country and thwart its political development. Pakistan is a tragedy in the making and the people seem to be hapless to prevent such a development from taking place. It is a shame that the Musharraf regime does not realize this fact of life in Pakistan and is bent on remaining in power at all costs.

It is high time that the military leaves the corridors of power once and for all times to come. But as suggested before, this is easier said than done. Inside military support and outside support by the West, especially the USA, is the main factor that is giving life to this disgusting military regime. This is all the more tragic considering that General Musharraf had great public support when he came to power in 1999. He seems to have squandered the public good will. The military regime did not realize that the public was expressing its disdain over the past 11 years of so-called democratic rule and was not yearning for military rule as such. Nevertheless, we can only hope that General Musharraf and his cronies see the wisdom of leaving power to an elected civilian government. Again, we seem to be wishing too much here.

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