Elections Without Democracy in Pakistan
By Najum Mushtaq July 17, 2002

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The military’s infinite plan to rule Pakistan goes on under the auspices of the United States. During her visit to Islamabad in April this year, Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca brushed aside criticism of a farcical referendum that gave General Musharraf five more years as president. Rocca said it was “Pakistan’s internal matter.” Now, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher says that Washington is looking forward to “free and fair” elections in October and a return to democracy. This posture of naiveté is obviously a quid pro quo for the military government’s complicity in the war on terror.

Normally, elections give the voters an opportunity to choose a government. Not so in Pakistan. Regardless of the results of polling on October 10, General Musharraf will remain the president of Pakistan. Whatever happens on election day, the military shall remain in power. Those who get a public mandate in October to run the country shall be wholly subservient to the will of the military. “Free and fair” elections under a military government imply continuity of military rule, not a transfer of power to an elected parliament.

This is not new. Five previous general elections in Pakistan–in 1985, 1988, 1990, 1993, and 1997–also reinforced this status quo. Rather than empowering the popularly elected political parties and submitting to their writ, the military has been the sole arbiter of their fate. Rather than letting the voters decide the tenure of parliaments, it has been the military’s prerogative to usher in civilian governments and boot them out as and when it wishes to. Prime Ministers Mohammed Khan Junejo, Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif were allowed to use the honorific title only as long as the military let them stay in office. Elections and democracy orchestrated by a dominant military is an old charade, always played out with the full backing of our patrons-in-chief in Washington.

What is new, however, is General Musharraf’s plan to give this pro-military status quo a formal constitutional cover. In the run-up to the October elections, General Musharraf has proposed a ream of constitutional amendments to alter the very nature of the federation of Pakistan. “The military’s role in the political system is being formalized,” General Musharraf told a delegation of newspaper editors, “because it reflects the objective realities.”

So, there will be a National Security Council to oversee the parliament and elected governments. All military chiefs–of the air force, the navy, and the army–will sit on the council to be headed by the president himself. The elected representatives, instead of being responsive and answerable to their electorate, will have to succumb to pressures from a U.S.-backed military.

To minimize the possibility of resistance from parliament, the military has arbitrarily decided who can contest elections and who cannot. Benazir and Nawaz Sharif, the two popular leaders who were twice elected prime minister during the 1990s, cannot. Nor can those who have not been to college for a BA degree. Which means over 98% of Pakistanis now have no right to stand in the elections and also that “graduates” in religious studies from madrasas (seminaries) are eligible, even if they never went to a school.

It seems not to matter a bit that all political parties, all newspapers, and every audible voice in society oppose the general’s democracy plan. The military does not care as long as Washington is happy with its anti-terrorism performance. The alliance of the military and the United States is what encourages General Musharraf to go ahead with the ruse of elections and thus perpetuate his power in the guise of democracy. This is a hackneyed script, replayed over and over and over again. From presidents Eisenhower to Reagan to the Bushes, and from generals Ayub to Zia ul Haq to Musharraf, there’s been no respite for the people of Pakistan from this infinite plan that condemns them to a life under perpetual military rule.

(Najum Mushtaq < najumm@hotmail.com > is an analyst at the International Crisis Group’s project based in Islamabad.)

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