Many Versions of Democracy

Indian Express , September 5, 2007

The last three decades have seen the ouster from power of several entrenched authoritarian rulers around the world. The process of political change at the end of a dictatorship in most cases falls into two broad categories: the blood-in-the-streets outcome or the negotiated transition scenario.

In the first case, disillusionment with the autocrat leads to civil disturbance or mass protests. The successor regime is not guaranteed to be more democratic or inclusive than the outgoing one. In the second situation, a weakened regime negotiates a transition that protects some of the interests of its leading members but allows a new, usually more representative, government to emerge.

As General Pervez Musharraf’s grip on power slips, Pakistanis are contemplating the most effective way for the restoration of democracy. Given the pervasiveness of the military in Pakistan’s politics there is a widely expressed desire to ensure that Musharraf’s relinquishing of power should not be under circumstances that allow the military to continue to dabble in politics.

There is a widespread desire for systemic change. Former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has been allowed by the Supreme Court to return from exile, and he seems to believe that upon returning home he can bring the masses into the streets and force Musharraf’s resignation. The “let nobody talk to Musharraf and thereby oust the dictator” crowd is ecstatic. Sharif’s “courage” in deciding to return home, face the threat of arrest and challenge military rule is being praised on TV talk shows and in newspaper columns.

Negative comparisons are being made with the decision by the other exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, to negotiate with Musharraf the terms of her return to the country. Suddenly, Sharif is the paragon of democracy and Bhutto “the sell out.”

Those praising Sharif’s “principled” stance forget that he launched his national political career with the help of the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), on the shoulders of Pakistan’s Islamists. Without casting doubt on his current commitment to democracy, is it not relevant to at least wonder whether his enthusiasm in returning home to topple Musharraf could mark a repetition of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) of 1988? Then, the ISI had encouraged Sharif to join forces with Jamaat-e-Islami to contain Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Even now, it is clear that the might and wrath of Pakistan’s establishment is reserved for the PPP and not for Sharif’s faction. Notwithstanding her recent negotiations with Musharraf, Bhutto is not known for being a protégé of Pakistan’s military or intelligence services. On the other hand, Sharif may have fallen afoul of General Musharraf but he is clearly acceptable to other rightwing generals who still regard him as their former ally.

Bhutto is also being denigrated for trying to achieve a deal with Musharraf without mention of the fact that negotiations are an integral part of politics. Bhutto would have been at fault if her negotiating points had excluded demands such as removal of Musharraf’s uniform and the abrogation of the notorious eighth amendment to the constitution.

Now that the talks between Bhutto and Musharraf’s emissaries have stalled over these key issues, it is clear that Bhutto is not just cutting a personal deal with Musharraf.

The general, on the other hand, has been trying to “create the illusion of a deal without actually pursuing one” (as I wrote in these columns, ‘No big deal’, IE, April 11). Part of the purpose, especially of the government’s covert operatives has been to undermine Bhutto’s credentials as a democrat and to pave the way for a new IJI that challenges Musharraf but not the military-ISI.

Sharif’s entire political career has comprised of deals with the military-intelligence establishment. One cannot grudge his decision to get out of jail in 2000 as a result of a deal with the Musharraf regime, facilitated by foreign albeit friendly-to-Pakistan emissaries. But surely that should disqualify him from being painted as an unbending champion of civilian-democratic rule on the verge of leading a peoples power revolution.

The better bet for Pakistan right now is a negotiated settlement that enables both Sharif and Bhutto to return to Pakistani politics while at the same time addressing the systemic and institutional problems that have blocked Pakistan’s path to democracy.