Musharraf’s Democracy Riddle

Indian Express, January 12, 2007

General Pervez Musharraf recently told a public gathering in Dera Ismail Khan that “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.” Musharraf asserted naively, “The uniform has nothing to do with democracy. It must not be confused and vested interests are out to mislead the nation.”

In reality, Musharraf’s uniform has everything to do with Pakistan not being on the road to democracy. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto shares the hope with many Pakistanis, is that a transitional arrangement could somehow emerge that would allow Musharraf to wield power for a while and then allow him to fade away.

However, in Pakistan, 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 its political parties.

Those who cite the models of Chile and South Korea for Pakistan should not forget that the military’s political intervention there did not come to a complete end until Generals Pinochet and Chun Do Hwan 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. As has happened many times in Pakistani history, military decisions are made with politics on the mind and political decisions end up aiming at eliminating “enemies” rather than accommodating opponents.

The second problem with a uniformed president is that it leads to the degradation of national institutions. Neutral state institutions, such as the army, civil service, judiciary and 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. There is a tendency among experts to divide the blame equally among its generals, politicians, religious leaders, and feudal elites for Pakistan’s democratic failure.

Undoubtedly, Pakistan’s politics is 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 chequered 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.

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.