Law and Order Are Far From Secure

Gulf News, April 4 , 2004

Suicide bombers in less than a year have targeted both Pakistan’s head of state and the designated head of government. Law and order in the country is far from secure. Ideological polarisation is at an all-time high.

The peace process with India is about to falter once again over a timeframe for resolving the Kashmir dispute. The government’s legitimacy remains open to question, making resolution of internal political disputes difficult.

But some members of Pakistan’s privileged classes, describing themselves as optimists, argue that Pakistan is on the right track. What could be more pessimistic than thinking that this is Pakistan’s best moment and that the country cannot really do better?

One group of “optimists” about General Pervez Musharraf’s prospects point to Pakistan’s economic indicators, which admittedly show significant improvements. They make the case that Pakistan’s military establishment is committed to economic growth and has come round to recognising the need for investment in the social sectors.

The “optimists” acknowledge that Pakistan does not have institutions of state and nation other than the military.

But they reason that a few years of sustained economic growth under authoritarian rule backed by American largesse would enable Pakistan to build its institutions. They cite the example of countries like South Korea, where economic development was attained under military rule and a successful transition to democracy followed.

But Pakistan cannot be compared to South Korea for several reasons. South Korea did not face the issues created by an ethnically heterogeneous population and its military was not a party to ethnic disharmony.

Moreover, the country had a clear phase of authoritarianism (and economic development) followed by a sustained evolution towards democracy. Once the military accepted a set of rules, it abided by them and there was no effort to micromanage the political transition.

In Pakistan, Musharraf has the difficult task of overcoming the credibility gap created by the failure of phased transitions under preceding military leaders.

Written on a clean sheet

Unlike South Korea, where the script for phased nation building was being written on a clean sheet, Pakistan has to contend with over-writing the ideological and political effect of the past. In South Korea, the military came first, followed by the Chaebols (business conglomerates) and both oversaw the evolution of political parties, an independent judiciary and a free press.

The military did not interfere with the working of political parties once they had emerged and certainly did not fix elections. The military did not compromise the judiciary by seeking its stamp of approval for the generals’ right to rule. All these factors made the phased evolution towards modern institutions of rule of law possible. In Pakistan, the track record of military rule does not generate confidence.

There will always be a strong pocket of resistance to Musharraf’s plans because of doubts over his intentions, emanating from the conduct of Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq. The so-called optimists have a tough task in overcoming these doubts.

The first group of so-called optimists about Pakistan’s prospects under Musharraf can be described as the “economic growth with external help is the first step in Pakistan becoming another South Korea lobby.”

The General has another corner of support from the segment of Pakistani society that can best be described as “cultural liberals”. These people see the progress of Pakistan through non-political eyes. Ayub Khan and Yahya were fine in their view because music and the arts were not interfered with.

Zia was bad because he intruded in the cultural aspects of liberty. Musharraf is good because basant can be celebrated with ease, music and dance and theatre are alive and the police does not stop and smell people’s breath for booze any more. But there is total disregard for what is happening politically in such analysis.

Musharraf’s critics note that he is making no effort to build independent judicial or political institutions. The PML has been taken over by the GHQ in a manner similar to the ones adopted by Ayub Khan and Zia, leading to a party being “in office” without a support base. There is little move in the direction of rule of law.

Final analysis

From the perspective of his critics, Musharraf has simply reversed Zia’s strategy for political survival without making fundamental changes in Pakistan’s governance. Just as Zia projected himself as a pious man and secured the support of the ultra-religious segment of the Pakistani population, Musharraf has decided to cultivate the culturally liberal end of society.

Like Zia, Musharraf is presiding over economic growth spurred by substantive inflows of foreign assistance. But governance is, in the final analysis, about politics and issues such as inclusion versus exclusion, rule of law versus arbitrariness. Musharraf’s final goal of retaining power for the military does not differ from Zia’s.