What’s Next in Pakistan?

Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2007

Pervez Musharraf was sworn in as Pakistan’s civilian president today after doing what opposition leaders in his country and the Bush administration have been asking him to do for some time — resign as army chief. The move has helped clear the way for elections early next year. But those elections will be neither free nor fair unless Mr. Musharraf does much more to restore the rule of law, and repair the damage he’s done to Pakistan’s civil society and constitution.

Mr. Musharraf’s desire to change Pakistan’s politics — the justification for a 1999 coup ousting then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — remains unfulfilled. Indeed, Mr. Sharif’s return to Pakistan on Sunday, after eight years in exile, points out the poverty of Mr. Musharraf’s idea of reforming Pakistani politics without democratic political participation. Mr. Sharif, it would seem, was allowed to return in the hope that his old rivalry with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, would be rekindled and ideological polarization would enable Mr. Musharraf to remain in power.

Although Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif agreed to a “charter of democracy” last year and represent strong populist constituencies, their ideological differences are quite pronounced. Ms. Bhutto stands for modernity and identifies closely with the West. Her Pakistan Peoples Party is the country’s largest political organization that describes itself as Social-Democratic, and has feuded often with Pakistan’s entrenched civil-military oligarchy. She spent her years in exile writing in American and English publications, and lecturing at U.S. universities. Her opposition to Islamist extremism and jihadism is unequivocal.

Mr. Sharif, on the other hand, is a religious conservative who started his political career as a protégé of former military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. In his tenure as prime minister, plagued by accusations of corruption, he tried to impose Shariah law in the country. After the 1999 coup, he was jailed and then exiled to Saudi Arabia after promising to stay out of politics for 10 years. He returned to Pakistan on a special plane provided by King Abdullah.

Overall, Mr. Sharif is more acceptable to the religious elements within Pakistan’s army and intelligence services that ran Pakistan before 9/11, and remain influential within the country. He, too, is opposed to Islamist terrorism, but is likely to be more compromising towards extremist groups. The fact that Ms Bhutto’s homecoming rally was targeted by suicide bombers, while Mr. Sharif faced no such threat, highlights the different attitude of Islamist terrorists towards the two leaders.

Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League is divided into two factions, one led by him and the other supporting Mr. Musharraf. Even if Mr. Musharraf seems averse to the idea, many in the Pakistan army and intelligence services would like the two factions to unite, in the hope that pro-jihadi elements within the security services could then reassert their influence.

While the U.S. appears to be giving mixed signals to Mr. Musharraf, the British Commonwealth’s decision, to suspend Pakistan’s membership until certain benchmarks for the restoration of democracy are met, is the right message for Pakistan’s military leadership. Although Mr. Musharraf has stepped down as army chief, he has not lifted the Nov. 3 imposition of martial law disguised as a state of emergency. He has also issued decrees that allow him to wield draconian powers even after he lifts the state of emergency. Mr. Musharraf’s hand-picked Supreme Court has rubber-stamped all his decisions, while the majority of judges of the original court remain under house arrest.

Yes, legislative elections have been scheduled for Jan. 8 and more than 5,000 of the estimated 8,000 people arrested under the emergency decree have been released. But these partial steps are meant to silence critics without changing the reality on the ground.

Few Pakistanis believe that a free and fair election can be held without a free judiciary, a free media or freedom for political parties to campaign. Many candidates and campaign workers of major opposition parties remain in prison. Mr. Musharraf has stacked the Election Commission and the caretaker cabinet, which under Pakistani law must be neutral during the run-up to elections, with his own supporters.

U.S. public opinion is solidly against Mr. Musharraf’s autocratic measures. According to a poll by Opinion Dynamics released by Fox News this week, 50% of those surveyed said “yes” in response to the question, “Do you think the United States should cut off aid to Pakistan until the state of emergency is lifted and democracy is restored?” Thirty four percent disagreed and 16% expressed no opinion.

The Bush administration, however, seems willing to let Mr. Musharraf get away with suspending Pakistan’s constitution and sacking independent Supreme Court judges now that he’s resigned his army post and promised to hold elections. The administration’s reasoning appears to be based on the limits of U.S. influence within Pakistan, and the need for gratitude toward an ally in the war against terror. But Mr. Musharraf’s stepping down as army chief and holding elections in an atmosphere of intimidation would not make Pakistan a democracy. It would make Pakistan resemble many of America’s Middle Eastern allies, notably Egypt, where elections are routinely held and a weak civil society survives at the sufferance of a dictatorship subsidized with American aid.

For his part, Mr. Musharraf is unhappy with even the limited criticism of his policies by U.S. officials. He has said that he feels “let down by the West” and “betrayed by the media.” He recently spoke of Ms. Bhutto as “the darling of the West” — a disparaging reference to stalled U.S. efforts for a negotiated transition to democracy that would have accommodated Mr. Musharraf as a civilian president and allowed Ms. Bhutto’s election as prime minister.

Yet it is Mr. Musharraf, not Ms. Bhutto, who has received billions of dollars in aid from “the West” and personal praise from a long list of U.S. luminaries ranging from President Bush to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Musharraf has been proud of his American connections, citing on more than one occasion U.S. support since 9/11 as somehow conferring legitimacy on his military regime. Now, however, it is useful for him to pretend the West has turned its back on him and through no fault of his own.

In doing so, Mr. Musharraf is following in the footsteps of the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Manuel Noriega of Panama. Challenged by their own people, each one of these U.S.-backed authoritarian rulers blamed the America for failing to understand their compulsions, and for creating the circumstances that eventually led to their downfall.

The uproar against Mr. Musharraf has been caused by his disregard for Pakistan’s constitution and his disrespect for the rule of law — not by his support of U.S. policy in the region and the war on terror. Last Saturday’s deadly terrorist attacks outside Pakistan’s military headquarters prove that martial law has not improved the Pakistani government’s ability to fight terrorists.

The way forward does not lie in legal or political maneuvers by Mr. Musharraf, or for the military to cling to power. This would only result in greater instability. A better course would be the creation of a government of national consensus, comprising secular and moderate politicians and civic leaders. Such a government could mobilize popular support for the war against terrorism and prosecute that war effectively, while ushering in a transition to democracy through free, impartial and fair polls.

Yesterday, President Bush helped clarify U.S. policy by saying Mr. Musharraf has “got to suspend the emergency law before elections.” He might also make it clear to Mr. Musharraf that foreign policy cooperation does not give him license to trample Pakistan’s constitution underfoot.