Musharraf’s Growing Crisis of Legitimacy

Gulf News, September 26, 2007

Not long ago General Pervez Musharraf was quoted in newspaper reports as telling parliamentarians of the King’s Party (the Pakistan Muslim League – Qaid-e-azam) that he would remain president for the next five years at all costs. 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 rules by the Election Commission. The promotions and postings in the army’s senior ranks are ongoing.

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 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 Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the window for an orderly transition would narrow.

The PPP would, in that case, join the other opposition parties in resigning from the current 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 military coup, he will not overcome the crisis of legitimacy that surrounds his government for quite some time. In fact, 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 even further.

If Musharraf lasts another five years he will be considerably diminished in authority and respect though not necessarily in power.

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

In what can be construed as a direct negation of the Musharraf definition of a Pakistani democracy, the State department primer clearly states, “Democracies conduct regular free and fair elections open to all citizens. Elections in a democracy cannot be facades that dictators or a single party hide behind, but authentic competitions for the support of the people… [The] idea of civilian control and authority over the military is thus, fundamental to democracy.”

Musharraf and the Pakistani military would soon have to make a choice. They can continue to rule as it is and be seen as a praetorian military that wields power but no longer commands respect at home or abroad.

Myanmar (Burma) falls in that category. Or they can give up political power, beginning by embracing the concepts of civilian control and alternation in authority, and secure the legitimacy they now lack.