Pakistan: A Chance to Grow Up

12 March 2008

Pakistan: A Chance to Grow Up

By Gwynne Dyer

Two things are needed for the current train of events in Pakistan to have a happy ending. One is that ex-general and more-or-less-president Pervez Musharraf accepts his rejection by Pakistan’s voters gracefully and leaves office without too much fuss. “This is the people’s verdict against him….He should accept the facts and he should not create hurdles and rifts,” as former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf overthrew in 1999, put it.

The other necessary condition of a happy outcome is that the White House, Musharraf’s enthusiastic backer ever since the terrorist attacks of September, 2001, doesn’t try to save him.

Hanging onto the commander-in-chief’s job for ten years, until he was three years past the obligatory retirement age, did not endear Musharraf to his fellow generals, nor was his perceived subservience to American interests popular among them. When the new c-in-c, General Ashfaq Kayani, said after last month’s election that the army would stay out of the political process, he probably meant it.

In that case, Musharraf’s problems are probably terminal. In the parliamentary elections of 18 February (postponed for six weeks after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December), the ex-general’s tame political party, the PML-Q, won only fifteen percent of the seats. That share roughly corresponds to the level of popular approval for him personally in the opinion polls, so he really doesn’t have much to work with.

In retrospect, last autumn’s successful campaign to force Musharraf to doff his uniform was exactly the right tactic, since without the power to command the army directly he has become much more vulnerable to public opinion. He managed to get himself “re-elected” to the presidency anyway, mainly by keeping his uniform on until the old parliament (where his supporters were the largest faction and others could be bought) had chosen him again as president — but that just created a different vulnerability.

The Pakistani constitution forbids military officers from running for the presidency for two years after they leave the armed forces, but Musharraf did not dare retire from the army until he was safely re-elected president last October. Since that made his re-election illegal, in November he fired the chief justice and twelve other members of the Supreme Court whom he suspected of planning to enforce the law against him (plus some fifty other judges), and declared a state of emergency, allegedly about terrorist threats, to give his action political cover.

He got away with that at the time, but now it is coming back to bite him. The state of emergency was lifted in December to hold the parliamentary election, in which Musharraf expected Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to win — and to make an alliance with him. One cannot know what Benazir Bhutto actually intended, but it was certainly Washington’s plan that she would become prime minister, and thus save Musharraf’s presidency by giving it a more or less democratic facade.

Her assassination guaranteed that the PPP, now led by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, would win a majority in the election on a sympathy vote, but it also voided whatever deal there may have been between her and Musharraf. The PPP duly won almost half the seats when the election was finally held last month — and the party led by the man Musharraf overthrew in 1999, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, won more than a quarter.

These two parties have now agreed to form a government together — and to reinstate all the judges whom Musharraf removed from office within thirty days. If they do that, then those judges will surely do what Musharraf intervened to stop them from doing in November: they will rule that his “re-election” in October contravened the constitution, and order him to leave office.

Left to its own devices, Pakistan’s army is unlikely to lift a finger to save Musharraf. Although it has ruled the country for half the time since independence, it is always careful to safeguard its popularity with the public: it only moves to intervene at times of despair, and this is a time of hope. It may be false hope, but the voters feel they have accomplished something, and it would be a grave mistake for the army to defy them.

Could the United States persuade the army to save Musharraf? Not at the corporate level. It might find a few ambitious colonels, but all previous military interventions in Pakistan have been done by the entire military establishment, acting under the authority of its legally appointed commanders. The few ambitious colonels would be repudiated and crushed.

So Pakistan is going to be a democracy again, at least for a while. The coalition is made up of people who do not like or trust one another and the economy needs urgent attention, but at the very least it is better than more of Musharraf. At best, it is a chance for a nuclear-armed country of 160 million people to stop playing zero-sum political games and start taking itself seriously.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“Left…it”; and “The Pakistani..them”)