Musharraf makes a farce of democracy

Gulf News, January 24, 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 has decided not to risk his position and power at a free poll. He will be “elected” president by the 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 reflecting his total hold on power in Pakistan. In fact it indicates the weakness of a military ruler embattled at home and abroad.

The Pakistani constitution envisions a parliamentary system of government, with directly elected legislatures at the federal and provincial levels. The president, under the constitution, is head of state and the symbol of the unity of the federation.

He is, therefore, elected by an electoral college comprised of the National Assembly, the Senate and the four provincial assemblies. Under the constitutional scheme, the president derives his mandate from the mandate given by the people to their elected representatives.

The four presidents elected under the constitution since its adoption in 1973 (Chaudhry Fazal Elahi, Gulam Ishaq Khan, Farooq Leghari and Rafiq Tarar) 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 come to an end. Legal experts known for facilitating military rule in Pakistan have said that the manoeuvre is legal. But such technical legality is not a substitute for legitimacy.
Waiver from charter ban

As of now Musharraf is “president” because he decreed himself so as a result of a referendum held before the legislative elections of 2002, which were deemed by international observers and Musharraf’s friends in 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, if it can be called that given that he secured the position by fiat and not by election, ends on November 16, 2007. His manoeuvre is an attempt to ensure that he remains president without having to seek election from legislatures elected by the people.

Official spokesmen claim 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 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. Even after the rubber stamping by an emasculated parliament and weakened provincial legislatures it is doubtful whether Musharraf can overcome his regime’s crisis of legitimacy.

In fact, if history is any guide, Pakistan’s coup makers have always become politically weaker after manipulating themselves into a second term.

Rigged referendum

The pattern of Pakistan’s coup makers has been that the general seizing power rules for a few years with the help of a Supreme Court judgment approving his military takeover followed by a first presidential term based on a rigged referendum.

This is followed by a presidential election of some sort, with minimal pretense 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 Ayoub 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 Ayoub Khan as the combined opposition candidate and showed her popular support at huge public rallies.

General Zia-ul 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 did cramp Zia’s style, leading to its premature dissolution three years later.
Popular support for Fatima Jinnah and the refusal of Zia-ul Haq’s protege Mohammad Khan Junejo to be his puppet showed that Pakistan’s politicians might be too weak to remove military rulers from power but they can withhold legitimacy from the rulers.

Like Ayoub Khan and Zia-ul Haq before him, Musharraf remains fearful that once he becomes a civilian and takes off his general’s uniform, he will be susceptible to coups d’etat like all civilian rulers of Pakistan.

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