Democracy for Musharraf

Gulf News, April 12, 2006

During his recent visit to Pakistan, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher tried to balance American support for democracy in Pakistan with the Bush administration’s support for General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime.

Like other American officials before him, Boucher suggested that support for Musharraf and democracy might not be incompatible. Washington is hoping that, without Musharraf relinquishing power, Pakistan could inch forward towards civilian supremacy and democratic rule with the 2007 parliamentary elections.

The US wants these elections to be a little less tainted and a bit more acceptable both at home and abroad than previous electoral exercises under Musharraf’s rule. But so far there is no indication that the next election will be any fairer than previous ones.

Change will come only if the US recognises that the basic attitudes of Musharraf and Pakistan’s military leadership are inconsistent with what is universally considered democracy, and then sets clear criteria for what Musharraf must do to pass America’s democracy test.

The fundamental realities in Pakistan are that the country is ruled by a general in uniform who has shown no inclination for giving up power; The Pakistani constitution has already been altered beyond recognition; and the country’s political parties remain at the mercy of the country’s intelligence services. As the 2007 election approaches, Musharraf and the politicised military have stepped up their war against popular opposition leaders.

Instead of fudging the issue, the US and others in the international community should make it clear that a free and fair election would be possible in Pakistan only if some basic conditions are fulfilled.

An independent Election Commission, with full powers to challenge the actions of everyone including Musharraf, is necessary as is the presence of competent international observers, such as those provided by the Carter Centre and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) in several contentious elections around the world.

If Pakistan is to become a democracy in spirit and not only in form then the gimmickry that has characterised the political conduct of Pakistan’s military-led establishment for years must come to an end. So must the hypocrisy of Pakistan’s western friends, including the United States.

Musharraf must relinquish his position as Chief of the Army Staff and secure election as a civilian president under the terms of Pakistan’s constitution.

Popular support

The constitution bars a member of Pakistan’s professional armed forces from running for elective office until two years after his retirement from this office of profit. In a parliamentary form of democracy, politics is reserved for those seeking popular support and accepting the risk of being voted out.

There can be no free expression of the people’s will at the ballot box until and unless the constitutionally mandated separation between state functionaries and elected politicians is restored.

In addition, Musharraf and the armed forces must be restrained from pre-determining the outcome of elections by mandating the exclusion of known political figures and declaring that certain personalities will never be allowed to be elected. How can there be a free and fair election when a coup-making general arbitrarily decides who can or cannot participate in the electoral process?

The question of the competence or integrity of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto has no relevance to their right of inclusion in the political process. Democracies do not give the executive branch of government the right to disqualify candidates on grounds of charges not proven in a court of law. In a democracy, the people are the sovereign and they should have the right to decide the fate of their leaders.

With its eye on the 2007 elections, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is pretending to have found new evidence of corruption against Bhutto, who was last in power ten years ago. If the prosecutions brought a decade ago have not yielded any convictions, how can new cases filed more than ten years after the fact have credibility?

Another fundamental requirement of a free and fair poll in Pakistan is the termination of all covert operations by Pakistan’s intelligence services in the domestic political arena.

The ISI’s unlawful mobilisation of funds for preferred parties and candidates in the 1990 elections is the subject of a case that has been pending before the Supreme Court without hearings since 1995.

During Musharraf’s rule, the intelligence services have created the PML (Q) and the Patriots faction of the PPP through arm-twisting and outright corruption. Manipulating the political process is not a legitimate function for any country’s security services and in the presence of such manipulative capacity it is unrealistic to expect a fair poll.