Military Shouldn’t be Meddling in Politics

International Herald Tribune, July 29, 2002

WASHINGTON Among Muslim nations, Pakistan and Turkey are the closest allies of America and other Western countries. Turkey will be crucial if the war against terror leads to an invasion of Iraq. Pakistan is already central to the campaign against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But both have a history of political instability linked to military intervention in politics. Pakistan’s self-appointed president, Pervez Musharraf, is hoping to fend off challenges to his military regime with a political-constitutional arrangement similar to that in Turkey. But Turkey’s latest political crisis should serve as a reminder that a military-dictated constitution and a national security council which vetoes political choices are not a substitute for democratic give and take.

The government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit is on the brink of collapse as a result of defections. The economy has shrunk by 9.4 percent in a year. Fresh general elections are likely to produce another weak coalition along with a strong showing by Islamic and center-right politicians disapproved of by the military. Turkey’s controlled democracy is faltering just as Pakistan is thinking of emulating it. A determination to eliminate even the most moderate Islamic groups from the political scene and a rigid view of Turkish national interest prompted military interventions in 1960, 1971 and 1980. In Pakistan, the military does not trust politicians’ handling of interprovincial relations or relations with India.

Musharraf has said he would not let former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto return to office because of their alleged corrupt misrule. He is planning to amend Pakistan’s constitution by decree, reserving most powers for himself as president. In doing that he is following Turkey’s General Kenan Evren, who, after his coup in 1980, disqualified several politicians and rewrote the constitution to ensure a military veto in political matters. But that constitution has not provided political stability. The three most prominent leaders ousted from politics by the military – Ecevit, Suleyman Demirel and Necmettin Erbakan – all returned to the political scene at the end of their disqualification.

Resilient politicians with hard-core political support do not wither away easily. The military cannot decree which politician should or should not have popular support. Bhutto and Sharif have the potential of becoming Pakistan’s Demirel or Ecevit. Politics in both countries remain stagnant as the military deprives the people of the chance to assess leaders’ performance. Turkey’s intelligence services routinely dabble in politics. Pakistan’s security services are accused of running covert operations to influence elections or the formation of coalitions. Such machinations prevent political parties and the judiciary from playing a role in evolving corrective mechanisms for corruption or bad politics. In Turkey, any overt practice of Islam is seen as anti-secular. Concessions to a Kurdish identity or to a Cyprus accommodation are also considered outside the scope of political debate. In Pakistan, defense and foreign affairs are areas closed to discussion.

Instead of following the Turkish model, which is itself in need of major overhaul, Pakistan should lead the way in allowing democracy to take its course. Washington should encourage dialogue between Musharraf and political leaders living in exile.