Pakistan: The Persistence of Democracy

 8 October 2002

Pakistan: The Persistence of Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf was so determined to ensure that neither of his two democratically elected predecessors made a comeback that he made a few constitutional changes before calling parliamentary elections. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif served two terms as prime minister, so he made a new law that no one could have a third term.

Musharraf didn’t even want them to run in this month’s elections, so he also made a law that nobody convicted of corruption could stand for office (that covered Sharif), nor anybody who had failed to answer court charges either (that covered Bhutto). He would probably have made a law that nobody whose names begin with N or B could run for office if his advisers had not warned him that it sounded arbitrary.

It’s an old story: Pakistan has been ruled by generals for about half the time since its creation in 1947, but the generals always have a problem with legitimacy. No matter how they try, they cannot eradicate the assumption among ordinary Pakistanis that democracy is the normal state of affairs. Always, in the end, the country tries democracy again — even though it has been almost uniquely ill-served by its civilian political leaders.

Take the two civilians who dominated political life in Pakistan during the decade between the death of General Zia ul-Haq and Musharraf’s coup in 1999. Nawaz Sharif was a corrupt and cynical manipulator who ran the economy into the ground. Bhutto was more a poor manager than an outright thief, but her husband, Asif Ali Zardari (universally known in Pakistan as Mister Ten Percent), who served as investment minister in her government, is accused of stealing over a billion dollars from the state and has spent the past 8 years in prison.

Bhutto is also a total flake. She is only politically prominent because her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was also prime minister once, and was overthrown and hanged by the last-but-one military dictator of Pakistan. In power she was an unmitigated disaster, and yet she persists in the belief that she is the country’s anointed saviour. In one recent interview, she declared that “whenever I am in power, or my father was in power, good things happen. The economy picks up, we have good rains, water comes, people have crops. I think the reason this happens is that we want to give love and to receive love.”

Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party nevertheless remains the greatest obstacle to Musharraf’s plan to hold an apparently free and fair parliamentary election while still keeping real power in his own hands. At one point the PPP, though riven by factional intrigues, looked likely to win control of the new parliament, prompting the general’s henchmen to deploy the resources of the state in support of the main pro-Musharraf party, a breakaway faction of Nawaz Sharif’s old Pakistani Muslim League called Quaid-i-Azam.

It is very likely that the European Union observers will blow the whistle on the whole electoral process, but Musharraf has made certain that power is not really passing back into civilian hands. He has extended his ‘presidential’ term to five years, he has given himself the right to dissolve parliament at will if its behaviour does not please him, and he has created a new military-dominated National Security Council which will effectively outrank the civilian cabinet. And yet….

The remarkable thing about Pakistan is that its people don’t stop demanding democracy even though their experiences of it have been uniformly disappointing. Despite the country’s overweening military and its desperate poverty, despite the bitter ethnic rivalries and the fear of India that the generals exploit so well, military rulers never manage to resist that demand for very long. In other places military strongmen may stay in power for twenty-five or thirty years — Mubarak in Egypt, Assad in Syria, Suharto in Indonesia — but no Pakistani military dictator has made it much past ten. The beginning of their downfall is generally the first election that they hold to legitimise their rule.

The tradition begins with the rigged vote that made General Ayub Khan president in 1964. The opposition united behind the sister of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who almost certainly won the vote if not the count, and the humiliation that Ayub suffered was the start of his long decline.

General Zia ul-Haq’s 1984 referendum, in which he only managed to persuade five or ten percent of the population to come out and vote, marked a similar downward turning turn in his career. And will this election be the beginning of the end for Musharraf? Quite possibly, even though there was never any chance that he would be allowed to lose it.

Musharraf has had only three years in power, and until the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States made him an indispensable US ally, he was weaker by far than previous Pakistani military dictators at a similar stage of their trajectories. That is largely a reflection of the fact that civil society in Pakistan, despite all the factionalism and corruption of politics, is much stronger than it was under Ayub or Zia.

“There is an element of desperation,” said Najam Sethi, editor of the ‘Friday Times’. “The new Musharraf is a man who will bend any law and make any alliance in order to stay in power.” And it still looks unlikely that he will last more than a couple of years more.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“Bhutto…love”; and “The tradition…lose it”)

Pakistan’s elections are on 10 October, but the counting of the votes will take several days.