Pakistan’s crises widens schisms

Gulf News, August 2, 2006

With an important coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), threatening to pull out of the government, Pakistan is once again on the brink of a major political crisis.
General Pervez Musharraf’s position is assured by his command of the Pakistan army and therefore it is not under immediate threat. But the illusion of parliamentary government under military direction, built over the last several years, could unravel if the weak civilian wing of Musharraf’s administration is further weakened. Recent developments are leading to the questioning of the military’s professions that it is the stabiliser of Pakistan’s polity.

Musharraf could persuade MQM to continue supporting his handpicked prime minister Shaukat Aziz and the Sindh government cobbled together through the machinations of the security services. But Pakistan’s current political crisis runs deeper than the challenge of an uneasy coalition partner that controls the country’s financial capital and major port city, Karachi.

Musharraf and the Pakistan army have consistently justified their toppling of an elected government in 1999 on grounds of the alleged failure of Pakistan’s civilian leadership. With rampant corruption scandals and constant intrigue sapping the strength of the Musharraf-Aziz regime, the army’s claim of cleaning up the stables and laying the foundations of “true democracy” are beginning to ring hollow.

Rightful authority

Musharraf is not the first Pakistani general to believe that the army has the rightful authority to run Pakistan, including management of any pretensions to democracy.

Undoubtedly Pakistan’s politics are complex. Mistakes by several institutions and individuals have preceded the breakdown of each of Pakistan’s several experiments with democracy. But if there is a common thread running through Pakistan’s chequered history, it is the army’s perception of itself as the country’s only viable institution and its deep-rooted suspicion of politics and political processes.

Musharraf benefited initially from the short memory of the public, which had forgotten the military interventions of the past but remembered the chaos of civilian rule in the decade preceding Musharraf’s takeover. But now an increasing number of Pakistanis is beginning to wonder if a handful of coup-making generals can truly serve Pakistan’s national interest. A group of retired generals (including two former ISI chiefs), sitting and former parliamentarians and academics wrote a letter to Musharraf recently that sought the army’s disengagement from political power and called for the separation between the offices of president and army chief.

During the 1990s, Pakistan’s establishment meticulously built the case for how Pakistan’s politicians were “corrupt” and therefore unqualified to rule. All allegations of corruption were not unfounded but it is now clear that these were grossly exaggerated.
The supposedly “clean” politicians brought in since 1999 to replace the ones Musharraf says will “never” be allowed to return have proven no better than their predecessors. To cite one example, several members of parliament including ministers have been proven to have lied while filing their assets declaration forms.

Perhaps the time has come to abandon the army’s efforts to breed a new civilian leadership and to allow political processes to advance gradually and even painfully. As the signatories to the recent letter to Musharraf pointed out, Pakistan could move forward if the army withdraws from politics, the 2007 elections are held under neutral caretaker governments at the centre as well as in the provinces and all the major political parties learn from their past mistakes.

If that does not happen, Pakistan will only move from crisis to crisis and none of the country’s fundamental issues will get resolved. Institutional governance will come to Pakistan only when one institution the army refuses to insist on being the final political arbiter and the country is allowed to go through the many stages of democratic evolution. These growing pangs of democracy may not be trouble-free but they are unavoidable.