A General Decline

Indian Express, January 25, 2007

General Pervez Musharraf’s well-wishers had expected him to legitimise his rule and put Pakistan firmly on the road to constitutional democracy by holding free and fair elections in 2007. Instead, Musharraf will be “elected” president by Parliament and provincial legislatures that were elected in the tainted 2002 elections just as their term enters its last days. Some observers see Musharraf’s decision as reflective of his total hold on power in Pakistan. In fact, it indicates the weakness of a military ruler embattled at home and abroad.

The president, under the Pakistani Constitution, is head of state and symbol of the unity of the federation. He is elected by an electoral college comprising the National Assembly, Senate and four provincial assemblies and derives his authority from the mandate given by the people to their elected representatives.

The four presidents elected under the Constitution since its adoption in 1973 were elected by newly-elected assemblies at the beginning of their five-year terms. Musharraf, on the other hand, is seeking election from assemblies whose own flawed mandate is about to end.

Legal experts known for facilitating military rule in Pakistan, notably former Law Minister Sharifuddin Pirzada, claim the manoeuvre is in accordance with the letter of the Constitution. But such technical legality is no substitute for legitimacy.

As of now Musharraf is ‘president’ because he decreed himself so as a result of the rigged referendum held before the legislative elections of 2002, deemed by the US State department as “flawed.” Then, too, Musharraf did not seek election under the terms of the Constitution and gave himself a waiver from the constitutional bar on employees of the state (a concept that includes serving military officers) holding elective office. Musharraf’s term of office ends on November 16, 2007.

Official spokesmen have claimed that Musharraf’s “term as president” would end a week before the completion of the five-year term of the present assemblies on November 16. Therefore, if the next presidential election is held between September and October 2007 then the outgoing assemblies can rubber-stamp Musharraf as president without risking a proper election.

Such quasi-legal manoeuvres, aided by notions such as the doctrine of necessity and the concept of a military coup being its own legal justification, have been used by Pakistan’s military rulers since the country’s first coup in 1958. But legitimacy is a political, not a technical, matter. If history is any guide, Pakistan’s coup-makers have always become politically weaker after manipulating themselves into a second term. Their first term is followed by a presidential election of some sort, with minimal pretence of genuine democracy and political contestation, and it is at this stage that the absence of legitimacy of the ruler comes to the fore.

Field Marshal Ayub Khan sought “re-election’ through Basic Democrats, an electoral college of 80,000 local council members. He had hoped for a walkover but had to rig even that poll when the sister of Pakistan’s founder, the late Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, challenged Ayub Khan as the combined Opposition candidate and showed her popular support at huge public rallies.

General Ziaul Haq ruled from 1977 to 1984 on the strength of his coup d’etat and gave himself a 5-year term through a referendum that hardly anybody bothered to vote in. But a relatively free election, albeit on non-party basis, returned a Parliament in 1985 that cramped Zia’s style, leading to its premature dissolution three years later.

During negotiations in 2003 with parliamentarians over constitutional amendments, Musharraf had explained that he did not want to contest presidential elections because that would be beneath his dignity. Lowly politicians run for office. Generals are a higher breed and must not stoop to their level.

But by failing to chart a new course Musharraf is setting himself up for the same failures that were faced by his military predecessors.