Inside Pakistan’s Struggle for Democracy

The current democratic surge in Pakistan has shaken the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf to its core. This surge was sparked in March when Musharraf fired the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Ninety thousand Pakistani barristers, drawn from more than 120 districts, took to the streets. This in turn converted the country’s pent up passion for democracy into a revolt against Musharraf.

As many as ten million citizens poured onto the streets to greet the barristers’ caravans in town after town and city after city. In their struggle, the barristers had the support of all political parties of the right, left and center, with center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — listed alphabetically — in the lead. This struggle culminated in a landmark judicial ruling on July 20, in which 13 Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled to reinstate the Chief Justice.

In victory the barristers went back to their work, only to take to the streets again on September 6 to protest Musharraf’s planned run for president in uniform. In their nation-wide marches that day, they pledged to continue what they called the “second phase of their struggle” for the restoration of democracy. Their slogan is “Ub Raj Kuray Gee Khalq-i-Khuda” (Urdu for “Now is People’s Turn to Rule”). Faced with these challenges, Musharraf’s hold on power is fast slipping.

In panic, he is contemplating every option to survive. On August 9, he was all set to declare an emergency rule, which would allow him to suspend the basic human rights and exempt his actions from judicial accountability. The U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called him at two a.m. (Pakistan Standard Time) to advise him to step back. [1] The U.S. encouraged him to broaden the base of his political support instead by sharing power with mass-based parties, such as Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which is headed by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

In fact the Bush administration has long been working behind-the-scenes to stitch an alliance between Ms Bhutto and Gen. Musharraf. [2] The administration apparently prefers Ms Bhutto’s center-left PPP over center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML) that is headed by Ms Bhutto’s fellow former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The administration believes that Bhutto-Musharraf alliance can unite the moderate majority against gathering extremism in Pakistan.

Persuaded, and more importantly weakened, Musharraf heeded U.S. call. On July 27, he flew into Abu Dhabi to meet Ms Bhutto, where the two huddled for three-and-a-half hours to forge the terms of an agreement. It would allow Musharraf to retain the presidency for another five-year term, beginning in November of this year, and would give Ms Bhutto her safe passage to Pakistan after eight years in exile.

The administration’s efforts are, however, snagged by Musharraf’s insistence to retain the army post as Chief of Staff while still staying on as president. The constitution, however, does not permit this. In addition, he wants to be elected by the current parliament, whose term will expire in November this year. As a democrat, Ms. Bhutto is neither willing nor able to concede to such demands that run counter to the very basics of democracy. Instead, she wants him to quit the army post and contest election after a new parliament, which serves as the president’s electoral college, is formed early next year. While intermediaries are busy bridging their disparate positions, Musharraf’s government is fast turning into a “sinking ship.” [3]

Desertions in Musharraf Ranks

A large number of lawmakers of his ruling Quaid-i-Azam Muslim League (QML) are deserting him for rival parties — the PML and PPP. As many as 50 sitting QML MPs (nearly one-third of its representation in parliament) have refused to apply for party tickets for the general elections slated this year. In a gesture of public defiance, the Federal Minister of State for Science and Technology resigned on August 27 to protest Musharraf’s run for President in uniform. The QML’s Senior Vice President denounced his move to get reelected in uniform: “If you cannot get elected under democratic norms, why should you continue?” [4] Many QML MPs, he said, will not vote for Mushrraf if he runs in uniform. Signs of this simmering rebellion were evident when a band of 19 QML lawmakers refused to see Musharraf during his campaign stop in their home region of Bahawalpur, which ironically has long been known for its go-along-get-along politics. Another QML MP and Parliamentary Secretary from nearby Multan defected to PML.

Mass defections in QML ranks are possible as a result of former Prime Minister Sharif’s efforts to return to Pakistan. His first attempt, on September 10, came to grief when he was forcibly deported to Saudi Arabia. This violated the Supreme Court’s ruling of August 23, which ordered the government to let him return unhindered. Summing up the rage of civil society over the deportation, Asma Jehangir, Pakistan’s most popular human rights leader, said: “A despotic (Saudi) monarch has tried to rescue a despicable (Pakistani) dictator.” [5] Sharif’s supporters have already filed a petition with the Supreme Court challenging the exile. All this is likely to further jeopardize Musharraf’s prospects for reelection, and enrage the people.

The mood of the general public seems even more soured on Musharraf. An opinion poll conducted by the Washington-based Republican National Institute (RNI), released in August, shows that two-thirds of Pakistanis want him to leave the political scene altogether. [6] Above all, the assertive Supreme Court has further clouded his chances for reelection in or out of uniform. The constitution, of which the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter, bars him from running for president while still in active military service. Nor does it allow him to run for a political office until after two years of retirement from active service.

In the past, a tamed Supreme Court has overlooked such constitutional infractions to let him keep his job. Now that the court has undergone an extreme makeover since July 20, he seems to have run out of luck. On September 5 he court began hearing three petitions challenging Musharraf’s eligibility for President and retention of dual office as President and Army Chief. Mindful of the timing of presidential election between September 15 and October 15, the court has announced that it will decide these petitions before the election schedule is formally announced.

In January 2000, when the then Supreme Court dared accept for hearing a similar petition challenging Musharraf’s military coup of October 12, 1999, he fired six of the 11 justices including the Chief Justice of Pakistan. The present Supreme Court is a different matter, however. Anticipating an unfavorable ruling, he is already thinking of elevating his Minister of Defense, who is his childhood friend, to become President. [7]

Musharraf Policy vs. Pakistan Policy

If Musharraf’s political future seems so uncertain, why then the Bush administration is risking its credibility to salvage the unsalvageable? Sen. Joe Biden, chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the most astute observers of world affairs, says: “We have no Pakistan policy; we have a Musharraf policy. That’s a bad policy. The policy should be based on a long-term relationship with Pakistan…” [8] Many educated middle-class Pakistanis resent the administration’s Musharraf policy, i.e., its unquestioned support to Musharraf without little or no regard to the people’s democratic aspirations.

Interestingly, this is the same class of people whom the administration intends to court to fight extremism. Washington expects Musharraf to lead the charge on extremism and terrorism, which, on his watch, have peaked to unprecedented levels. The negative fallout, for the U.S., of growing extremism in Pakistan is evident in the rising anti-American sentiment that is shared by 90% of its citizens. [9]

Terrorists have never been stronger. On August 30, a convoy of 300 Pakistani soldiers was ambushed, disarmed and abducted from South Waziristan, which is simply unheard of in Pakistan’s 60 years of existence. [10] Yet the Bush administration continues to regard Musharraf as an anchor of stability in the region. A conservative thinker Chris Patten, who is a former Governor of Hong Kong and now Chancellor at Oxford University, passionately disagrees. “Afghanistan will never be stable unless Pakistan’s military government is replaced with a democracy,” Patten argues. [11] The proposed alliance between Bhutto and Musharraf which the administration is pushing for is likely to hurt Ms Bhutto without helping Musharraf.

Musharraf’s Errors and Weakness

While the administration’s concerns over extremism and terrorism are widely shared, its approach to fight them with Musharraf at the helm is flawed at best. Musharraf has no popular support base in Pakistan to mobilize the country for a common cause. His suppression of the centrist secular PML and PPP parties has actually increased both extremism and terrorism.

Furthermore, he severely undermined counter-terrorism efforts by initiating a war of choice in the country’s southwestern province of Baluchistan, which has forced the most oppressed Baluch ethnic minority to take up arms. While most Baluch nationalists are progressive-secular in their political and social orientation, he has turned loose on them hundreds of thousands of fundamentalist Taliban to beat their secular nationalism with Islamic nationalism. At the same time, he has closed off the entire province, which is 43% of the country’s landmass, to the outside world in order to keep military operations and the Taliban’s presence there invisible. As a result, Baluchistan has turned into a safe sanctuary for the Taliban and their allies, who repeatedly mount attacks against NATO-U.S. troops in neighboring Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

Musharraf’s failure to push economic and political reforms in the tribal areas has further fueled extremism and terrorism. Although $65bn (half of Pakistan’s GDP) has flowed into Pakistan since 9/11 [12], according to Pakistan’s official estimates, 60% households in tribal areas live below the poverty line, [13] while independent sources put the number of such households above 90%. He has also continued to enforce the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCRs), which, under the ruthless code of collective responsibility, punishes the whole clan for the crime of one stray member. This has pushed many members of the tribal youth into the Taliban’s embrace.

Above all, he keeps stirring the trouble in Afghanistan to keep himself relevant to U.S. and NATO leadership as a “crucial ally in the war on terror.” While this relevance has thusfar kept him in power, his failings may have finally caught up with him. The Bush administration now seems ready to back off its “Musharraf policy” in search of a better alternative.

The Alternative: An Alliance between PML and PPP

As things stand, an effective strategy to combat extremism and terrorism will require an alliance between political actors with mass support base. The Bhutto-Musharraf alliance has neither natural affinity nor any prospect of survival. The real, workable alternative is a long-term cooperative relationship between the PML and the PPP to rid Pakistan of violence and promote stability in Afghanistan. The PML-PPP alliance is, therefore, desirable and possible for the following reasons:

First, unlike Musharraf, both parties have deep and wide support bases among the masses. Between them, they almost equally split 80% of the national electorate. With the restoration of electoral democracy, both parties will offer a democratic alternative to violence that has grown in intensity in reaction to an autocratic regime. This will especially help end violence in Baluchistan, as all Baluch nationalist leaders and parties are allied with PML and PPP in the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD). If peaceis secure in Baluchistan, with the help of Baluch nationalists, this will immediately sever the Taliban’s lifeline to the tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan. The Musharraf government deliberately kept this conflict alive, argues Chris Patten, because a military government “always thrives in a hostile environment.” [14]

Second, both parties have the political means to isolate terrorists in the tribal belt in northwestern Pakistan, which Musharraf could not do because his coercive approach lacked support within the military and among Pashtuns, who make up 40% of Pakistan’s armed forces. The result was hundreds of desertions by enlisted men, and open defiance of the command by senior military officers, [15] which until then was too rare to register. Military analysts suspect that the latest abduction, on August 30, of 300 soldiers also is a case of desertion rather than abduction. [16] More importantly, Musharraf neglected the infiltration across the Durand Line into Afghanistan, by concentrating deployment in the tribal areas for the phantom menace of an Afghan or Indian-inspired insurrection there. To undo these failings, the PML and PPP are in a position to forge a unified political strategy to shift the military focus onto the Durand Line that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan. This would plug infiltration on both sides, while engaging the tribesmen in economic and political reforms that are crucial to peace in the region.

Third, neither party has an incentive to make Afghanistan into their chess game to keep themselves relevant to the West. In their respective past tenures in power between1988 and1999, both the PML and PPP helped restore peace in Afghanistan. The PML brokered a deal between the Northern Alliance and Pashtun majority of Afghanistan in the early nineties, which led to the formation of a coalition government in Kabul, under, first, President Sibghatullah Mujaddadi, a Pashtun, and then President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik. True to their past tradition, they have the will and the power to sever all military supplies to Afghan insurgency and engage NATO-US troops and the Kabul government to end violence along the Durand Line.

What further adds to their credibility is their close relations with all major players on the Afghan scene: the U.S., NATO, Pashtuns, and Northern Alliance. Finally, they will have more influence with the military, which is made up of 60% of Punjabis and 40% of Pashtuns. The PML’s powerbase is Punjab; while PPP draws support from Pashtuns in northwestern Pakistan and southern Punjab. Musharraf, having no ethnic base of his own, has little support in the military and even less in the public. As such, “Musharraf may prove to be even too poisonous for the military, who have always appreciated widespread support from the populace.” [17] There are already signs that “some within Pakistan’s powerful army ….are beginning to grumble.” [18] Given these perilous developments, an alternative alliance between the PML and PPP, which as pragmatist and centrist parties are the “West’s natural allies,” is all the more important. [19]

Above all, compared to the Bhutto-Musharraf deal, the PML-PPP alliance is more natural and realistic. On May 15 of last year, Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif signed in London the Charter of Democracy (COD) that pledges to rid the country of extremism and terrorism and strengthen democratic institutions, ensure an independent judiciary, nurture a free media and work together to give Pakistan a clean and honest government. Regardless of whether Bhutto-Musharraf deal goes through or falls apart, the PML-PPP alliance is inevitable. Pressure is building within both parties to work together for the next 5-year term to moderate extremism and combat terrorism. More importantly, given Pakistan’s challenges, no one party alone can live up to the demands of governance without having the cooperation of the other. It was this realization that led to the very signing of the Charter of Democracy, which Ms Bhutto termed the most significant event since the Simla Agreement. Her father sealed this agreement with India in 1971, after the fall of former East Pakistan, creating Bangladesh. A PML-PPP alliance is the only realistic hope for peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which the international community must support and push for.

Endnotes:

1. Tarique Niazi, “Talk to the Taliban.” Foreign Policy in Focus, August 16, 2007. (http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4474)

2. “Musharraf Agrees to Resign as Army Chief,” The Washington Post, August 30, 2007. (http://washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/29/AR2007082900495)

3. “Ex Premier Sharif will return to Pakistan on Sept. 10,” AFP, August 30, 2007. (http://www.news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070830/Wl_afp/pakistanpoliticssharifbritain_070830154348)

4. “Pakistan Prepares for Former Prime Minister’s Return.” New York Times, August 25, 2007. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/25/world/asia/25/pakistan.html?ref=world&pagewanted)

5. “Exiled Nawaz Sharif arrived in Jedda: Opposition condemns, calls for strike.” BBC News, September 11, 2007. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/urdu/Pakistan/story/2007/09/070910_landing_two_rza.shtml)

6. “Musharraf support dropping, poll says,” The Boston Globe, August 2, 2007. (http://www.boston.com/news/world/asia/articles/2007/08/02/musharraf_support_dropping_poll_says/)

7. “Rao Sikandar’s appointment as new Pakistan President under Consideration,” Geo T.V., September 7, 2007. (http://www.geo.tv./geonews/details.asp?id=11197&param=1)

8. “Bush has ‘Musharraf Policy,’not Pakistan Policy: US Panel.” The News International, Islamabad (Pakistan) (http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=9707)

9. “What the World Thinks in 2002,” The Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C., December, 4, 2002. (http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=165)

10. “Assault on Musharraf’s Power Base.” Time, September 4, 2007. (http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1658620,00.html). Initially, The Washington Post reported on August 31, 2007 that Taliban had seized 100 Pakistani troops. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/08/30/AR2007083001395)

11. Chris Patten, “What Ails Afghanistan?” The Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2006.
(http://www.madison.com/wsj/home/column/other/index.php?ntid=203375)

12. Irfan Siddiqi, “Yeh Parda Nasheen Kaun Hain?”(Who Are these Veiled People?) Nawa-i-Waqt, (Lahore, Pakistan), August, 21, 2007.

13. “ADB Preparing Project to Develop Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan,” Feb. 18, 2004. (http://www.adb.org/media/Articles/2004/4379_Pakistan_develop_FATA/)

14. Chris Patten, “What Ails Afghanistan?” The Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2006.

15. Tarique Niazi, “Troop Defections Threaten Pakistan’s Operations in Tribal Regions,” Terrorism Focus, 4(4), March 6, 2007. (http://jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2370270&printthis=1)

16. Shaukat Qadir, “Surrenders and frontier warfare,” Daily Times, Lahore (Pakistan), September 8, 2007. (http://dailytimes.com.pk/print.asp?page=2007/09/08/story_8-9-2007_p.3

17. “Assault on Musharraf’s Power Base,” Time, September 4, 2007. (http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1658620,00.html)

18. “Pakistan’s New Odd Couple?” Time, August 23, 2007. (http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1655726,00.html)

19. “Pakistan Prepares for Former Prime Minister’s Return,” New York Times, August 25, 2007. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/25/world/asia/25/pakistan.html?ref=world&pagewanted)

Tarique Niazi is an Environmental Sociologist at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.