The Freedom to say No

Indian Express, June 8, 2006

Official Pakistan has responded to the buzz generated by the opposition’s Charter for Democracy in characteristic manner. Supporters of military rule are currently busy mocking the alliance between former rivals Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Allegations of misrule under Bhutto and Sharif are being repeated and, in some cases, rehashed. General Pervez Musharraf is sticking to his previous line that the two former prime ministers will never be allowed to return to power.

All this begs the question: Why not let the people of Pakistan decide? After all, in a functioning democracy, elections are held periodically to determine whom the people want to wield executive office and legislative power. The people vote against politicians who failed to deliver and occasionally forgive their transgressions because of some other redeeming quality.

Furthermore, politics is about making a choice from available options. People can elect a leader in one election, vote them out in the next, only to elect them back under different circumstances. If someone is convicted of a crime by a court of law, the law takes its course.

Only last week, Peru’s voters elected Alan Garcia as president even though his tenure as president 16 years ago had been marked by a failing economy and a violent rebellion. An Associated Press report on Peru’s election explained the voters’ choice in terms of rejection for a candidate supported by Venezuela’s radically anti-American president Hugo Chavez. ‘‘I want our party this time to demonstrate to the Peruvian people, who have called it to the highest responsibilities, that it will not convert the state into booty,’’ Garcia was reported as saying—a reference to the corruption that had marked his first term from 1985-90. Garcia may or may not deliver on his promises. But at least Peru’s military, or a shadowy establishment representing security and intelligence services, did not usurp the right of deciding whether a man whose term in office was ruinous in the eyes of some could run again or not.

The Pakistani people deserve the same right to decide upon the qualifications of their politicians as the people of Peru. The people could choose to trust General Musharraf and his allies or revert to Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. By signing the Charter for Democracy, the two leaders have agreed to follow certain rules of the political game in the future.

Their commitment to a new pattern of behaviour might appeal to the people or they could find that their popular support has eroded. Either way, the people must be trusted to deliver the final judgement, not General Musharraf and a coterie of unelected generals, international bankers and businessmen who benefit from military rule.

But Pakistan is still in the grip of a vice-regal system under which the purpose of elections is merely to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent State establishment. The State establishment monopolises executive power and retains a veto over legislation. On the few occasions when elected governments have been allowed to take office, the State establishment has tried its best to circumscribe the power of elected officials.

Between 1972 and 1977, an elected government managed to wield full authority because the permanent State structure simply could not stay in power after the bifurcation of the country under military rule. Students of Pakistan’s political history know that soon after the 1958 coup d’etat, Pakistan’s military leadership started searching for ‘forms of democracy’ that would allow the generals to retain control of policy while allowing civilians an illusion of political power and some control over patronage.

The military establishment and its apologists argue that the military’s direct political intervention in 1999 was necessitated by the widely discussed incompetence and corruption of the politicians that held power during the 1990s. But Pakistan’s history did not begin in 1988 and with the political competition between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both of whom have been systematically maligned by Pakistan’s establishment.

Pakistan’s army chiefs, beginning with Ayub Khan, have disqualified a generation of politicians at ten-year intervals, claiming that through local government and “grassroots democracy”, duly controlled by the ISI, they will produce a stable, democratic system over time. Pakistan’s problem, quite clearly, does not lie with specific politicians and their flaws. It is the product of an attitude that puts generals on a pedestal, refuses to recognise politics as a legitimate occupation and refuses to allow the will of the people to manifest itself in free and fair elections. General Musharraf’s claims of building ‘real democracy’ ring hollow in the absence of real elections.