January Issue 2005
It came as no surprise to anyone when President Musharraf, on the eve of the new year, declared that he was not doffing his military uniform. In his 50-minute harangue on PTV, the General told us how indispensable he was and how his stepping down from the post of army chief would be dangerous for the country. It was deja vu all over again. Almost every military ruler has offered the same line of reasoning to perpetuate his political stranglehold.
Almost one year ago, General Musharraf solemnly promised the nation that he would quit the military and become a civilian leader by the end of 2004. The pledge was never meant to be fulfilled. What it accomplished, however, was help Musharraf get the LFO ratified by parliament and won him crucial time to consolidate his control. Now it is quite apparent that Musharraf does not intend to step aside even after 2007. Nothing could be more farcical than his claim of restoring full democracy and bringing political stability to the country. His decision to retain the military post has exacerbated political uncertainty and weakened the democratic process. What is more alarming is the increasing militarisation which threatens the security of the country.
Musharraf is completely the dependent on the support of the army and America for his survival in power. By breaking his public pledge to quit as army chief, Musharraf has lost whatever credibility he had, while the move carries serious political repercussions. Holding on to the dual office will drag the army deeper into the political mire, and deepen the existing political polarisation. Most observers agree that General Musharraf’s decision to stay in uniform is not likely to go down well with his military officers who have fully stood behind him so far. The move is bound to fuel resentment, particularly among those who would like the country to return to full civilian rule. The spectacle of their chief in full army uniform addressing political rallies may certainly raise many eyebrows. “Musharraf is riding a tiger,” says a retired army officer.
Meanwhile, staunch support from the Bush administration has further boosted Musharraf’s morale. He was also the second leader, after British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been received at the White House after President Bush’s reelection. There is a clear indication that Washington wants Musharraf to stay in uniform as long as its war on terror continues. Democracy is certainly not an issue for the Bush administration, because a Pakistani leader in military uniform can certainly deliver far more than a democratically elected one. It is very obvious that an army general ruling Pakistan does not trouble the west as long as he happens to be an effective ally in the war against terror. But this support is not unconditional. Washington will continue to twist Musharraf’s arm on the nuclear proliferation scandal, which has not died with the action against Dr. Qadeer Khan. A strong section of the American administration is still not satisfied with the information provided by the government on the issue. The screw will start tightening once again when American feels that Musharraf’s utility is over.
Washington’s backing may have given Musharraf a huge boost, but that cannot change realities at home. Despite the backing of the army and America, he is floundering. He has spawned a system which is a hybrid of military and civilian rule. It is certainly not a democracy. So far the military’s backing has provided the system a semblance of stability, but it is crumbling under its own contradiction. The civilian dispensation engineered by the military has failed to take off. The parliament and the cabinet are almost dysfunctional. In a space of just three months Musharraf has sacked one Prime Minister, pushed aside a second and appointed a third even before he was elected from a borrowed National Assembly seat. The Prime Minister is just a showpiece while the military blatantly continues to call the shots.
Musharraf’s highly personalised style of governance has blocked any hopes of a democratic process taking root. He does not seem to have any trust in the system he himself has created. The parliament and the cabinet have become irrelevant as decisions on all important domestic and foreign policy issues are made by the small coterie that surrounds him. The President in his speech claimed that he had voluntarily handed over executive powers to the Prime Minister, but the situation on the ground is totally different. Everyone knows where the actual center of power resides. It is hard to imagine a functioning democracy in a situation where the fate of parliament is determined not by the members themselves, but by a man in military uniform. There is no succession principle in his system, which will inevitably lead to a take-over by another general in the event that something happens to Musharraf.
Musharraf moved for a rapprochement with the Pakistan People’s Party as opposition to his retaining the military post intensified. The release of Asif Ali Zardari after he had spent eight years in prison has come after the negotiations between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf’s emissary reached a crucial stage. The talks that involve an important senior army officer started a few months ago, but was kept secret even from senior Muslim League leaders. Shujaat Hussain was taken into confidence much later. There is still a long way to go before any deal will be sealed which could help Musharraf sail smoothly, at least till 2007. The main sticking point at the moment is Bhutto’s demand for the withdrawal of the Pakistan government as a party in the money laundering case now in process in a Swiss court. The talks have, however, divided the opposition and diverted the focus from Musharraf’s uniform issue.
Attempts at a rapprochement have come as Musharraf looks to contain the MMA in the next elections and completely reversed the policy adopted by the military during the 2002 elections when the MMA was propped up to contain the PPP and PML(N). The move has also been encouraged by America, which is not comfortable with the MMA’s political influence in two key provinces — the Frontier and Balochistan. The deal may possibly lead to the inclusion of the PPP in the federal and Sindh governments. Another reason behind the negotiations with the PPP is the establishment’s growing wariness with the MQM’s activities. Altaf Hussain’s statements during his recent visit to India have soured its new-found relations with the military establishment. Musharraf also needs the support of the PPP as he finalises plans for the construction of the Kalabagh Dam.
The military’s domination in politics has been divisive and has generated discontent in the smaller provinces. The brewing rebellion in Balochistan presents a serious threat to the security and stability of the country. Musharraf has given the green signal for the construction of the controversial Kalabagh Dam without reaching a consensus among the provinces. The establishment is fragmented over major issues particularly on the peace process with India. While Musharraf has taken some positive steps in easing tensions with India, some of his statements are highly contradictory. In November he came out with a new proposal for a solution of the Kashmir issue, but soon started backtracking after a cool response from India. Most political analysts agree that it was a serious mistake to make the proposal public when talks with India had just begun. Interestingly, neither the cabinet nor the foreign office was taken into confidence before the President articulated the proposal at an Iftar party. Some senior foreign ministry officials maintain the public statement made no sense, when both countries were engaged in back-channel talks. The move only complicated the issue.
Though Musharraf presented himself as a reformer, promising to liberalise society, strengthen state institutions and curb religious extremism, his policies have been full of paradoxes. Following in the footsteps of past military rulers, Musharraf found his allies among the most retrogressive social and political forces who are certainly not in sync with his professed objectives. The military establishment cobbled together an alliance of the same feudal and corrupt politicians who have always been ready to be co-opted by the generals. The majority of the PML(Q) members are turncoats who joined the army bandwagon after the coup. Political expediency is still the order of the day, so it is not surprising that the cabinet has several members who are facing corruption charges. So much so for the democratic culture that Musharraf claims to have spawned.
His promise to eradicate religious extremism, too, remains unfulfilled. The military’s reluctance to make a clean break with its traditional allies among radical Islamic groups, coupled with the suppression of liberal political parties, has left the country hostage to extremist elements. Half- hearted measures, largely taken under international pressure, totally lack conviction. Musharraf’s so called vision of “enlightened moderation” may have brought a marked improvement in the country’s cultural atmosphere and won him applause from the west, but that is where it ends. On most key issues, he has backtracked under pressure from his own right wing PML (Q) allies and the mullahs. The much touted education reforms have long been stalled after top PML ( Q) leaders and the MMA strongly opposed changes in the curriculum. The bill against honour-killing has been so diluted that it has lost any meaningful effectiveness.
Musharraf’s half baked measures have failed to eleminate extremism from society. The resurgence of Islamic extremist groups is evident in the rising graph of sectarian-based violence. An important part of Musharraf’s plan to combat extremism was to regulate and reform those madrassas whose role in promoting jihad has come under increasing international scrutiny. Because of his government’s failure to deliver, to any substantial degree, on pledges to contain the growth of jihadi networks, religious extremism in Pakistan continues to pose a threat to domestic, regional and international security. Many Pakistani madrassas are still providing recruits to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Musharraf’s failure owes less to the difficulty of implementing reforms, than to the military-led government’s own unwillingness to go all the way. While showing commitment in apprehending Al Qaeda fugitives, the military-led government has refrained from taking a tougher position against homegrown extremists and the politics of expediency has allowed the religious right and Islamic extremists to expand their base.
The horizontal and vertical fragmentation of society along political, religious and ethnic lines, which has intensified over the last few years, poses the most serious problem for both Musharraf’s and Pakistan’s survival.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.