Military rule stifles democracy

Gulf News, January 10, 2007

President General Pervez Musharraf does not seem to see a contradiction between his decision to retain his military uniform and his claims of transforming Pakistan into a democracy.

He recently told a public gathering in Dera Esmail Khan that his uniform has nothing to do with democracy. “For the first time, the assemblies are completing their tenure. The year 2007 is the election year and people should elect progressive and moderate people,” he was quoted by the media as saying.

Musharraf asserted naively, “The uniform has nothing to do with democracy. It must not be confused and the vested interest is out to mislead the nation.”

In reality, Musharraf’s uniform has everything to do with Pakistan not being on the road to democracy. Recently former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was reported to be prepared to accept Musharraf as president in uniform in return for a free, fair and inclusive parliamentary election.

Bhutto has denied a deal between her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Musharraf. But her hope, shared by many Pakistanis, is that a transitional arrangement could somehow emerge that would allow Musharraf to wield power for a while longer and then allow him to fade away.

Supporters of this transitional mechanism cite the examples of Chile and South Korea, where power sharing arrangements between democratic politicians and coup making generals paved the way for constitutional, democratic government over a period of time.

In Pakistan’s case, however, phased transitions from military to civil rule have faltered in the past. For a power-sharing arrangement to be meaningful it is important that it should be more than an arrangement between individuals and parties but rather a social contract between Pakistan’s all powerful military and the country’s political parties.

Those who cite the models of Chile and South Korea for Pakistan should not forget that the military’s political intervention in those countries did not come to a complete end until Generals Pinochet and Chun Dohwan were detained or tried, thereby establishing civilian accountability over coup making security services.

The problem with having a uniformed president is two-fold. First, it represents politicisation of an institution the army that should be above politics.

A professional military’s main task is to defend the country against external aggression. Soldiers are trained to locate and liquidate enemies.

When a serving general runs the country in addition to commanding the army, his political and soldierly interests collide.

As has happened many times in Pakistani history, military decisions are made with politics on the mind and political decisions end up being soldier-like, aimed at eliminating “enemies” rather than accommodating opponents.

The second problem with a uniformed president is that it leads to the degradation of national institutions as supposedly neutral state institutions, such as the army, the civil service, the judiciary and the intelligence agencies, end up taking the side of the uniformed incumbent.

Pakistan has become a highly militarised state under its four military rulers, who have collectively ruled the country for 31 of its 59 years in existence.

The military is an important institution in the life of any country but it should not dominate aspects of life for which soldiers have no training or aptitude. Allowing a serving general to be head of state, in violation of the country’s constitution, encourages militarisation and undermines civil society.

There is a tendency among experts to divide the blame equally among Pakistan’s generals, civilian politicians, religious leaders and feudal elites for Pakistan’s democratic failure.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan’s politics are complex. Mistakes by several institutions and individuals have preceded the breakdown of each of Pakistan’s experiments with democracy.

But if there is a common thread running through Pakistan’s checkered history, it is the army’s perception of itself as the country’s only viable institution and its deep-rooted suspicion of civilian political processes. The generals have refused to let politics take its course.

Although generals have ruled Pakistan for over half of the state’s existence, Pakistanis have still clearly considered democracy to be the only legitimate system of governance for the country.

Acknowledging this reality, each of Pakistan’s four military rulers generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul Haq, and Pervez Musharraf has tried to redefine democracy and claim that he and the army were building democracy instead of bypassing it.

The result is a carefully crafted system of political manipulation, which empowers covert agencies and individuals working at their behest instead of allowing people’s representatives to conduct open and accountable politics.

If Musharraf remains in uniform, it is this system that would be perpetuated instead of a genuine democracy, which allows genuine debate and real alternation of power among contending parties.

So far, Musharraf and the military have strayed little from the script of Pakistan’s earlier generals. Not until the army’s institutional thinking changes or its hold becomes weaker can Pakistan be expected to make a transition to democratic rule.