August Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

For nearly eight years, General Pervez Musharraf’s courtiers have run an expensive, self-serving campaign against politics and politicians. The central message of the campaign has been that public representatives are irredeemably corrupt and incompetent. Riding the message has been the argument that Pakistan’s economic future can only be secured by postponing the arrival of full-fledged democracy, which by its very nature is ‘disruptive.’

The ruling junta came up with its ideal governing combination: a group of US-leaning technocrats, including Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank employee, together with self-serving politicians in an army-run, iron-fisted system.

The results have been an unmitigated disaster. After eight years of unbridled rule, General Pervez Musharraf’s political command has delivered a Pakistan where troops are deployed to secure internal peace, and whose external borders are increasingly threatened by none other than the United States.

With growing and widespread terrorism, the economy looks to be barely stable, and more and more investors are asking pointed questions about the future.

Thus hoisted with his own political petard, and faced with a collapsing system, General Musharraf now has to eat all the words he had so forcefully spoken against his favourite punching bags: Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

The strongest evidence of the failure of his strategy to run Pakistan came on July 27. This was the day when hundreds battled against the police and temporarily took over the hastily reopened Lal Masjid to protest the killings at the place two weeks ago. Nearby, a suicide bomber attacked policemen at a hotel and killed 18, including civilians. In Balochistan, the banned Balochistan Liberation Army assassinated provincial government spokesman, Raziq Bugti.

But away from this mayhem, General Musharraf sat in the UAE sorting out, with the help of British and local interlocutors, the final details of his political arrangement with Benazir Bhutto. While the details of the arrangement are still murky and wrapped in mystery, the bottom line is quite clear.

According to a highly-placed source who facilitated these contacts, the two-part understanding is meant to get General Musharraf elected as president for another five years in return for a string of gradual concessions made to Ms Bhutto. These concessions include getting her cleared of all corruption charges and swift acquittals in such cases that would have disqualified her from contesting the coming elections.

These concessions also include removing the legal hurdles from her path to become prime minister for a third time, something that is, at present, barred under the so-called Qualification to Hold Public Offices Order 2002. General Musharraf had issued this order as the country’s chief executive to mark his resolve to “never allow corrupt politicians to ruin the country again.”

The larger arrangement, says the source, centres on the possibility of getting Benazir Bhutto’s party and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League to jointly govern the country, after having fought the elections as competitors.

“These talks were not about any election alliance, but looked in a detailed fashion at the possibility of the two parties forming coalition governments at the federal and provincial levels,” says the source.

Diplomatic sources from countries that are guarantors of the deal — the US, Britain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia — say that there is a full package to revive the parliament’s powers and restore the supremacy of the office of the prime minister. “To make the future system effective and the civilian rule meaningful, certain clauses of the constitution will have to be amended (Article 58-2 (b)) and I think the general understands the importance of such a step,” says a diplomat.

cover-benazir-aug07For the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which is at present embarassed by accusations that it has cut a deal with a military ruler, the arrangement entails the possibility of forming governments at the centre with the PML(Q), and in Sindh with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The Punjab will be contested ‘on merit,’ meaning electoral performance shall determine who forms the government. The NWFP will offer either a coalition government or a coalition opposition, depending on whether the religious alliance, the MMA, would stay together or fall apart. In Balochistan, the Peoples Party would sit on the opposition benches.

In simple terms, General Musharraf shall be president and govern the country in collaboration with an effective but cooperative Benazir Bhutto as prime minister.

But to implement these terms of the deal, different possibilities (“implementing strategies” is how these are referred to by one diplomatic source) are out on the table.

“Part of the arrangement that allows President Musharraf to win a second credible presidential term from the same assemblies will have to be implemented in the coming two months. The rest of the arrangement will come into effect later on,” says a presidential aide.

In other words, Benazir Bhutto’s backing to the general’s second term comes before she is let off the hook in the cases that block her honourable return to Pakistan and her election to the new assemblies.

But why should she deliver to the general his main objective and wait for a favour in return?

“The process to get her cleared of these charges is already underway and will be completed by the time the presidential election is taking place. She will have something in hand to feel confident about,” says the presidential aide.

Moreover, maintains another source, Benazir Bhutto senses the opportunity of a lifetime to get out of the political bind she finds herself in.

“The whole focus of her negotiations has always been the desire to stabilise her personal situation: she wants her political name cleared and her political future restored. She also wants to protect her fortune and has been keen to put this matter at the centre of her negotiations,” says a senior member of the president’s team with access to privileged information.

But Benazir Bhutto’s inner circle is still unsure about the outcome of the first real test of this understanding that the party will support General Musharraf’s second term in uniform.

One source, who has travelled frequently between London and Islamabad, speaks of these inner anxieties: “Ms Bhutto is aware of the dangers inherent in backing General Musharraf in uniform. No matter how great the eventual advantage for herself and the party, this could destroy the public image of the party,” says the source.

These fears are not baseless. General Musharraf and the ruling party are not the hottest political commodity in town. A recent survey by the International Republican Institute shows that Musharraf’s popularity ratings plunged to 34% in June 2007 from last year’s healthy 64%.

But even 34% seems an incredibly high score. One popular criticism regarding the authenticity of the survey is that it does not reflect the ground realities.

Although harsh, such criticism has a basis. The survey does not include the outpouring of public sentiment upon the restoration of the chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Nor does it measure the reaction to the manner in which the military operation was carried out at Lal Masjid. For different reasons, and among different sections of the population, General Musharraf’s image got a severe drubbing on account of these two events.

“The Peoples Party would be better placed backing General Musharraf without the uniform. On the day the presidential election takes place, if he remains a candidate with the brass on, our party will have a huge problem,” says a PPP leader.

Yet General Musharraf does not want to be taking any chances. He wants to utilise his dual office as a guarantor of the next term. “In uniform and from the same assemblies,” is his preference, says a presidential source.

His biggest worry is that any legally suspect position that does not have the endorsement of the parliament is likely to be shot down in the Supreme Court, whose chief justice’s activism has not been dampened by the four torturous months he spent under the ire of the country’s all powerful establishment led by General Musharraf.

cover-nawaz-aug07Most of the options before General Musharraf are open to legal challenge and might land before the honourable judges of the Supreme Court. For instance, Article 41 of the constitution says that besides meeting other conditions such as being a Muslim and not less than 45 years of age, the presidential candidate must also qualify to be elected a member of the National Assembly. Therefore, he must also satisfy all requirements of Article 63 of the constitution that pertain to parliament, including that of applying for a political office two years after having left a government job.

Then there is the question of the Electoral College as defined in article 41(3) for election of the president and as further elaborated in the Second Schedule of the constitution. What happens if any of the provincial assemblies are dissolved? Can the presidential election be held? The government’s view is that it can be held because there is a provision in the constitution for an extension in the date of the presidential election if the National Assembly is not there.

Government sources also rely on a judgement of the Indian Supreme Court where, during one of the presidential elections, the assembly of one of the southern states did not exist as it had been dissolved for the assembly’s elections. The court held that the elections could go on. However, Hamid Khan and Abid Hasan Minto, both former presidents of the Supreme Court Bar Association, say that the point is contestable.

So, if before the presidential election, the NWFP chief minister, as is being widely speculated, advises the governor to dissolve the assembly, then the government may challenge it in court as a malafide act that is being done to frustrate the president’s election and, at the same time, plead that the election can go on. But it will have to go to the court nonetheless — the same court whose chief justice it had attempted to dislodge on March 9.

Even if amendments are made to the constitution to pave the way for General Musharraf to get elected by either the present or the future assembly, these amendments would have to be generic and not personality-specific, otherwise they could get thrown out by the Supreme Court. The court would also examine whether these amendments alter the character of the constitution, and if they did, then such amendments cannot be made by this parliament. To do that, a constituent assembly would be needed.

A look at the Tables (1, 2 and 3) elaborates General Musharraf’s dilemma further. As is evident, all of his strategies to enter the second term with the uniform on are fraught with severe challenges to the moral plus legal, and therefore political, legitimacy of his rule.

The most tempting, and seemingly safest option, is the holding of elections on time, and allowing the present assemblies to complete their term. This would entail that the president be elected from the same set-up and that he contest for the next term while in uniform.

But this can be the most problematic option. This is the very combination that everyone in the opposition is fiercely opposed to, and it is likely to start a new round of street agitation and political litigation beyond anyone’s control. Selling this combination to Benazir Bhutto also means putting her party in the pillory, subjecting it to public ridicule.

Also the credibility of the upcoming elections, for whom the caretaker set-up will be hand-picked by General Musharraf, would be torn apart by a protesting opposition. And a wide-scale boycott of these could undermine the very purpose for which the exercise is being carried out: to stabilise the country and focus on the twin challenges of terrorism and development.

The delayed election scenario does not look all that good either. Extending the tenure of the present National Assembly would require imposition of emergency, which itself is sure to be challenged in the court of law. And, even then, the present system would only take the existing confusion to the next year without doing anything for General Musharraf: he may still have to be elected from the same set-up and therefore face all the challenges associated with such an attempt.

Seemingly the most adventurous is the option of dissolving the present assemblies and ushering in the new system before the president’s present term in uniform ends on December 13. However, this runs counter to the oft-repeated boast of “these being the first-ever assemblies to complete their tenure.”

Yet practically, this is the only option that seems to address some, if not all, of the grim challenges flying in General Musharraf’s face. The new assemblies shall be a new beginning, which can be made on a consensual note. Much of the bottled-up political frustration and anger, that is presently centred on General Musharraf will find a timely outlet. He has a chance of enhancing his stature by piecing together a trusted system of holding genuinely free and fair elections. He can use this opening to speak to parties which, otherwise, would not listen to him or engage with him. After all, at the end of the day, politicians cannot afford to stay away from the corridors of power.

Having held a genuinely free election, the president stands a better chance of marketing his candidature than otherwise.

But these pluses apart, the question that arises is, why should members elected to the new parliament take him seriously? In fact, as things stand today, there is no guarantee that they would. The level of distrust between the general and even those politicians who are allied with him is such that promises made before the elections can easily become words in the sand once the elections are over.

Moreover, the voters’ preferences are also a constant threat. Leaving the fate of his last tenure to the election of the next assembly poses a grave risk he does not want to take. For the most part, the next elections would be a contest between anti- and pro-Musharraf forces. It requires no political genius to figure out which way the scale is tipped.

Some well-wishers have attempted to suggest a more viable course of action to the general. Their wish list runs as follows:

1. The president (present government) call an All Parties Conference on the system to hold free and fair elections, with the aim of arriving at a consensus. The same platform can be used to come up with a national security strategy to deal with terrorism.

2. The president and the present government move a comprehensive package for restoration of the parliament’s supremacy, including the removal of article 58-2(b), disempowering the president to dissolve the National Assembly.

3. The government should facilitate the return of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif by engaging them in a genuine national dialogue.

4. The president should announce the date on which he would relinquish his uniform, which would reiterate the constitutional position.

5. The president should consider taking off his uniform after having secured an understanding with the PPP and contest the next term without the burden of the brass.

Most such suggestions have one thing in common: they speak of the urgent need to hand over the reins of the country to genuinely elected public representatives through a system that votes out the bad apples rather than booting them out. How General Musharraf responds to these suggestions is subject to how he is reading the writing on the wall — it is as much a test of his vision as it is of his wisdom to not resist the march of time.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.