Even if Musharraf Wins the Polls

Indian Express , September 26, 2007

Not long ago, General Pervez Musharraf was quoted in newspaper reports as telling parliamentarians of the King’s Party (the PMLQ) that he would remain president for the next five years, come what may. Now with a presidential “election” looming, it is clear what he meant. Musharraf is depending on legal wizardry and shuffles in the army command to promote personally loyal officers, backed by an iron hand and a lot of bluster to keep him in power.

The arrest over the weekend of several major opposition figures reflects the iron hand. Legal wizardry is mirrored in the amendment to the rules by the Election Commission. The promotions and postings in the army’s senior ranks are ongoing. The claims by the minister for parliamentary affairs that Musharraf can be “elected” even if supported by only one assembly out of the five (plus the senate), which constitute the presidential electoral college, fall under the category of bluster. But the entire process is devoid of that most essential ingredient of contemporary governance: legitimacy.

Musharraf appears to have rejected the prospect of a negotiated settlement that would open up the political process in return for him retaining the presidency, but without absolute power. If there is no breakthrough in his talks with Benazir Bhutto and the PPP, the window for an orderly transition would narrow. The PPP would, in that case, join the other opposition parties in resigning from the assemblies. The emergence of a joint opposition would boost the morale of anti-Musharraf forces and expand the protests against one-man rule.

Even if Musharraf wins this current round, too, as he has won previous power plays dating back to his 1999 coup, he will not overcome the crisis of legitimacy. That crisis will be aggravated as he declares himself elected president, with or without uniform.
If the electoral college has significant vacancies and some provinces are inadequately represented in it, as might be the case with resignations by the opposition, Musharraf will glaringly lack support in parts of the country even in elections on his own terms. Legal challenges to his staying in office will persist as will political questioning. International support, already waning, will shrink further. If Musharraf lasts another five years he will be considerably diminished in authority and respect, though not necessarily in power.

Legitimacy is an important attribute of government. The kings of old invoked the divine right of kings simply to secure legitimacy. Communists tried to legitimate themselves with the epithet “people’s democracy” under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Free, fair and inclusive elections have been the pre-requisite for legitimacy in the democratic world. Military takeovers have been justified as an interim measure to lay the foundations of a more legitimate order.

Initially, Musharraf sought legitimacy through claims that he had allowed a freer media and relatively free political discourse. The military coup of 1999 was described as an unusual measure. Musharraf claimed he was putting down the groundwork for a stable Pakistani democracy.

Many people were fooled by the rhetoric of gradual evolution to democracy. True, Musharraf, unlike Zia ul Haq, did not execute a former PM or order the public whipping of journalists or opponents. But he also did nothing to initiate the withdrawal of the military from politics.

Musharraf and the Pakistani military will soon have to make a choice. They can continue to be seen as a praetorian military that wields power but no longer commands respect at home or abroad. Or they can give up political power, embrace the concept of civilian control and alternation in authority, and secure legitimacy.