The Stage is Now Set

Indian Express , October 10, 2007

Unless the Supreme Court of Pakistan rules otherwise, General Musharraf has been “elected” to a five-year term as Pakistan’s president. Now, the only hope for normality returning to Pakistan lies in national reconciliation, which Musharraf has promised and some of Pakistan’s major international backers appear to have guaranteed. But Pakistanis, used as they are to political confrontation and polarisation, are having difficulty believing that national reconciliation is possible. Some of Musharraf’s supporters and opponents both suspect that it would be business as usual once the dust of the presidential “election” settles.

Musharraf has the option of acting like Turkish General Kenan Evren, who took power in a 1980 military coup and tried to reshape Turkey’s politics by excluding the major political leaders of the time — Suleyman Demirel, Bulent Ecevit and Necmettin Erbakan — from the political arena. Evren declared himself president after a referendum in 1982 and ruled as a strongman until he realised that his scheme for controlling politics simply was not working. After free and fair parliamentary elections, Evren gradually took a back seat and allowed politics to take its course. First, Demirel returned to the political centre-stage and then Ecevit and Erbakan followed suit. General Evren completed his presidential term and retired to a Turkish Mediterranean resort town where he took up painting and still lives. If Musharraf truly follows Evren’s model, Pakistan too could have a transition to democracy.

The first step towards that transition had to be reconciliation between Musharraf’s military regime and Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). After painstaking negotiations lasting several months, Musharraf and the military-intelligence apparatus that keeps him in power finally appears to have reached an agreement with Bhutto.

In return for the government dropping graft charges that have never been proven, members of the PPP did not join the rest of Musharraf’s opposition in resigning from the federal and provincial legislatures. The stage is now set for Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, and the rejuvenation of the PPP, which is already Pakistan’s largest political party.

Musharraf’s arrangement with Bhutto involved the promulgation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that ends corruption prosecutions that have not matured into convictions or confessions after pending for many years, in some cases over a decade. Other elements of the agreement relate to assurances of a free and fair parliamentary election and an end to the ubiquitous role of the military in the political arena.

The NRO is being attacked by two principal groups. On the one hand are Musharraf’s supporters and assorted advocates of a clean slate who insist that Bhutto, her husband and other politicians of the 1990s were corrupt and should not be given any quarter. The other group comes from Pakistan’s nascent civil society and the media. Their argument is that by opting for a negotiated transition, Bhutto has thwarted a revolutionary transformation they believe was under way to save her skin and her allegedly ill-gotten millions.

There are two major flaws in this line of reasoning. First, given that the cases against Bhutto and her associates were far from proven, it is wrong to claim that these were the PPP leader’s major consideration. Second, there is little evidence that the anti-Musharraf campaign that started with the lawyers’ movement over the chief justice issue could have brought the Musharraf regime down. In situations when the adversary is weak but your side is unable to deliver a decisive blow either, the best strategy is to negotiate. And that is precisely what Bhutto did.

The PPP has not bargained away its long struggle for democracy and civilian rule and the party’s negotiations with General Musharraf could still yield an orderly transition to democracy within Pakistan’s constitutional structure. The outcome remains to be seen and should not be prejudged in extreme terms.