Pakistan’s Phony Polls

Asian Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2002

Tomorrow’s parliamentary elections in Pakistan will not lead to the restoration of democracy. They could, however, lead to civil unrest and confrontation between Pakistan’s powerful military and its civilian politicians. Continued military influence is likely to increase hostility between Pakistan and India and undercut efforts to root out Islamic extremists, who have been the armed forces’ political allies in the past.

These elections are meant to meet the deadline for return to civilian rule set by the country’s Supreme Court after the 1999 military coup that brought Gen. Pervez Musharraf to power. But before holding the polls, Gen. Musharraf stripped parliament of its sovereignty through constitutional amendments imposed by decree. He has secured himself five more years as president, given himself the power to dismiss the government and parliament and authorized himself to amend the constitution further.

In addition, Gen. Musharraf has created a National Security Council comprising military and civilian leaders to ensure that the military’s guidelines are followed in policy making. The military has ruled Pakistan for more than half its existence as an independent nation and refuses to cede power despite promises of establishing true democracy. Irrespective of the results of Thursday’s polls, the military’s domination will remain the most important feature of Pakistani politics.

Gen. Musharraf secured his position ahead of parliamentary elections through a one-sided referendum in April which was criticized by many as fraudulent as well as farcical. So in order to avoid the embarrassment he faced during the referendum, the president has adopted a different strategy for the parliamentary elections.

In addition to arbitrary constitutional amendments, Gen. Musharraf has also decreed arbitrary rules for the elections. Candidates are required to have a college degree, which excludes over 90% of Pakistanis from running for parliament. Other rules prevent former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, as well as a hundred other experienced politicians belonging to mainstream political parties, from standing as candidates.

The customary 90-day campaign period has been cut to 40 days and severe restrictions have been placed on campaigning. State-run radio and television are being used to emphasize the mistakes of previous civilian leaders, without giving their parties a chance to respond.

Gen. Musharraf claims he is trying to change Pakistan’s political culture and bring new leadership to the country. Given the failings of the country’s political class, this seems to be a noble objective. But the president is not the first military ruler to make such claims. Pakistan has followed a familiar path since its first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, took over in a military coup in 1958. No matter how initially promising they seemed, military rulers always ended up multiplying Pakistan’s problems instead of solving them.

Repression, war or confrontation with India has characterized each one of Pakistan’s past military regimes. The focus on austerity dictated by aid donors and heavy military spending have caused economic hardship for the poor. Instead of reform, all Pakistan has to show for its years of military intervention are accusations of fixed elections and arbitrary constitutional amendments.

For that reason, initial support for Gen. Musharraf has given way to widespread opposition. Even those who earlier supported him now agree that strengthening the military’s hand is not the way to avoid the mistakes of civilian politicians.

The cynicism of ordinary Pakistanis about the controlled parliamentary election is likely to result in low voter turnout tomorrow. When Pakistan’s first national election was held in 1970, more than 63% of registered voters exercised their franchise. The voters turned out in large numbers because they expected to change their lives by electing their future rulers. By the time of the 1997 election only 33% of registered voters showed up.

A low voter turnout reflects a feeling on the part of the electorate that its vote simply does not matter. In 1970, Gen. Yahya Khan refused to transfer power to the elected representatives, leading to civil war and the secession of Bangladesh. Controversy over the 1977 election provided an excuse for the military coup by Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who ruled for 11 years. Between 1988 and 1999, governments were dismissed with alarming regularity while intelligence operatives manipulated the political process. Once this partially manipulated political process had been completely discredited, Gen. Musharraf assumed power directly on behalf of the military.

Consciously or not, the Pakistani military refuses to cede power and authority to civilians, in part to ensure its large share of national expenditure. The army justifies this role by perceiving and projecting India as an eternal, existential threat. Given the army’s power and disposition to intervene in politics, civilian leaders cannot realistically pursue accommodation with India or reassign national resources to development. India’s own obsessively anti-Pakistan (or, in the context of Indian domestic politics, anti-Muslim) interest groups appear to validate the arguments of the more aggressive elements in the Pakistani military establishment, fueling the unending conflict. Pakistan will not become stable, democratic and focused sufficiently on development until the army is persuaded to relinquish its political-economic dominance. This in turn requires some reassuring inducements from India, perhaps vouchsafed by the U.S.

Until now, Gen. Musharraf’s support in the war against terrorism has been considered sufficient reason by the U.S. to back his regime, without insistence on specific steps toward democracy. If the U.S. refrains from rebuking Gen. Musharraf over his power grab even after the parliamentary elections, it will encourage him to pursue policies inimical to Pakistan’s long-term stability.

Ironically, while Ms. Bhutto, Mr. Sharif and numerous other politicians with pro-Western views were barred from contesting the parliamentary election, the leader of one of several Islamic groups banned by Gen. Musharraf for links to terrorism remain on the ballot. Gen. Musharraf seeks support from the international community in return for his avowed commitment to fighting terrorism. But his desire to perpetuate his own rule, and the domination of the military in Pakistan’s politics, clearly outweighs other considerations. The United States should not allow Pakistan’s military ruler to feel that he can continue flouting democratic norms as long as he hands over some al Qaeda figures escaping from Afghanistan.