Upside of A Constitution

Indian Express , September 19, 2007

Pakistan is going through many convulsions to ensure that General Pervez Musharraf remains in office. The general believes he is indispensable for Pakistan. His sycophants encourage him in this. As a result, the Supreme Court is hearing several petitions challenging the constitutionality of his election bid while the supremely docile Election Commission is busily amending and reinterpreting rules to approve a Musharraf candidacy.

The opposition says it would not accept Musharraf’s election by an electoral college that has already endorsed him as president once before. One wonders, why can’t Pakistan go through leadership changes like mature nations, with a clearly defined election process that is periodically implemented by an undisputed mechanism?

The difference, of course, lies in Pakistan’s failure to ensure constitutional governance and rule of law that is, in turn, the result of frequent military interventions in the country’s politics. As a result of the military’s culture of unified command flowing over into the political realm, Pakistan’s governance revolves around the man in power, and not a political system.

Nations with evolved political systems do not always have great and charismatic leaders. But their constitutions and commitment to follow pre-determined rules provides stability and continuity in their governance.

The first president of the United States, George Washington, served two four-year terms as head of state and went into retirement. His successors have been elected at four-year intervals, with several being turned out of office after only one term.

The founder of France’s fifth republic, Charles de Gaulle, resigned office and preserved the constitutional order instead of seeking to prolong his rule at the expense of the constitution.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, laid the foundations of Indian democracy by being prepared to risk losing power in open elections held periodically. The decisions of Washington, de Gaulle and Nehru have enabled their nations to evolve impressive political systems even though not all their successors have been impressive personalities.

For almost eight years, apologists for the Pakistani establishment tried to project Musharraf’s ad-hoc measures to consolidate his position in power as an elaborate plan to create a viable and self-sustaining political system in the country. The problem is, constitutional arrangements need national consensus and a willingness to submit one’s self to their scheme. The political consensus in Pakistan remains in favour of the parliamentary system of government with multiple political parties. The Pakistani military establishment has repeatedly conjured new constitutional arrangements with the specific objective of staying in charge, not to submit to rule of law.

Instead of continuing to believe in his indispensability, Musharraf still has the option of setting a new precedent for Pakistan. He could restore and abide by the constitution, respect the newly asserted independence of the judiciary, and revert to Parliament its legislative authority after free and fair elections.

Musharraf could start abiding by the notion of fixed tenures, without extension, of army generals (including him). He could also mandate special training programmes for military officers so that the current military culture of contempt for civilians, politics and constitutional governance is replaced by respect for democracy. As a result of these reforms, Pakistan would gain the good fortune of a self-sustaining democratic system that has become an absolute pre-requisite for the viability of nation-states in the present age.

Only if Musharraf accepts the risk of political competition (and be prepared to lose power), could he secure positive mention in Pakistan’s chequered history.