July issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

If there were any illusions about Pakistan returning to democracy after the October elections, they vanished last month when President Musharraf unveiled his plan to redraft the constitution and acquire sweeping powers. It is quite apparent that he has no intention of transferring power to an elected parliament, but simply plans to establish a shadow military state in the garb of democracy.

The military government has suggested several amendments to the constitution that will empower the president to sack the elected prime minister, his cabinet and the parliament which are to be chosen in elections later this year. The president will also have the authority to name a person of his own choice as prime minister. The government plans to shorten the term of the parliament from five to four years and lower the voting age to 18 years. A National Security Council, dominated by the representatives of the armed forces, will have overriding powers over the elected parliament .

Most political observers agree the move will make President Musharraf, who has already declared himself president for another five-year term through a controversial and rigged referendum, virtually an all powerful leader, thus preventing the country’s return to a true democracy. He will continue to hold the office of chief of army staff as well. The establishment of a National Security Council also raises serious concern over the continuing domination of the military in the new political set-up that will emerge after the October elections. “It is a measure of the arrogant mindset of the generals who seek to impose a constitutional structure through an executive fiat,” declared Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. “It will be nothing but a perpetuation of military rule.”

General Musharraf, who seized power through a bloodless coup nearly three years ago, is bound by a Supreme Court ruling to hold parliamentary elections by October this year and transfer power to an elected government. He has promised to abide by the court order, but said that democracy could only be restored after changes in the constitution are made. “The changes are meant to ensure unity of command and a sustainable democracy,” he declared. “Unless there is a unity of command, unless there is one man in charge at the top, the government will never function.”

However, the concentration of all powers with the president will leave the prime minister, parliament and cabinet powerless, thus creating its own perils. This imbalance of power is bound to fuel friction between the elected parliament and the military president that will perpetuate political instability. The proposed amendments undermine the federal system and weaken the powers of the provinces. The rewriting of the constitution has come as a shock even to the pro-government elements. It is very apparent that Musharraf has reneged on his earlier promise that the future prime minister thrown up by the October elections will be all powerful.

The new constitution is the product of a military mindset which intends to run the country like a cantonment. The National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB), led by Lt. General (retd.) Naqvi, a self styled “intellectual” whose knowledge of political systems is as sketchy as a layman’s knowledge of military strategy, is trying to impose a political system which will result in the destruction of all those institutions essential for the working of a democratic system. The much hyped local bodies plan never got off the ground, while the controversial referendum too was the brain child of General Naqvi and his team of half-baked intellectuals who were employed as consultants.

The government maintains that the draft proposal has been presented for a national debate and a final decision on the constitutional amendments will be taken by the cabinet next month. “There will be an open debate” on what he described as the most vital package for “setting the foundation for a real democracy in the country,” said a government spokesman.

Meanwhile, almost all the political parties and human rights groups have rejected the proposed changes saying they would change the basic structure of the constitution. “It is a part of an effort to make the parliament subservient to the will of a military ruler,” said a leader of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. Political leaders also question President Musharraf’s authority to rewrite the constitution saying the move was in violation of the Supreme Court order to transfer power to an elected government. “An army ruler does not have the right to change the constitution. He is trying to change the federal character of the state,” said Liaquat Baloch, secretary general of the right wing Jamaat-i-Islami.

In an effort to block main opposition political leaders the military government has enforced a new law which bars anyone facing corruption charges from contesting elections. Both Miss Bhutto and Mr. Sharif, former prime ministers who are living in exile abroad, will be affected by the restriction. Miss Bhutto is facing trial on several counts and was recently sentenced in absentia to a three year senence for failing to appear before the court. Dismissing the allegation as “baseless” she has vowed to return to the country before the polls to challenge the military government.

President Musharraf’s latest move has united political forces across the spectrum. He has unwittingly created an unprecedented alliance of liberal, centrist and right-wing religious parties against him. An alliance of five major Islamic parties has vowed to overthrow his government accusing him of ” working on an American agenda”. Even Imran Khan’s Tehrik-i-Insaaf and the pro-military faction of the Pakistan Muslim League have refused to support the move to redraft the constitution. Musharraf’s political position and moral authority, which was hugely weakened by the referendum has been eroded even further by his proposed amendments to the constitution. Today he stands totally isolated with little political support. The politics of manipulation and the use of intelligence services to get a positive result may further aggravate an already volatile situation.

The ISI’s political cell is already preparing the grounds for an engineered election result. According to some reports the agency is not only trying to cobble together a pro-government political alliance, but is also busy preparing a list of candidates, “who shall be elected.” There are some reports that army officers are also forcing politicians to change their loyalties. Several politicians have confirmed that they have been asked by the ISI to join a newly formed alliance led by Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi and Farooq Leghari.

The government has also withdrawn cases of corruption, or allowed to be acquitted by the courts, those politicians who are toeing the military line. A case in point is former Frontier chief minister, Aftab Sherpao, who returned from London on the assurance that he would be acquitted in half a dozen corruption cases. Sherpao, who is heading a dissident group of the PPP, is now a crucial member of the pro-military political bloc which is being propped up to block the PPP’s chances to return as the single largest political party. There is also a move to co-opt politicians into the provincial cabinets as part of the plan to rig the polls. Five new ministers have already been inducted in the Sindh cabinet and other provinces are expected to do the same. None of these premptive measures, however, will help the government much as the elections will generate their own dynamics.

Even Musharraf’s staunchest loyalists agree that in the event of a free and fair election the parliament will most likely be dominated by anti-military groups. Senior government officials admit that Ms. Bhutto’s party is likely to emerge as the single largest party despite President Musharraf’s decision to bar her from politics. In that situation President Musharraf will face serious problems not only to his position but also to the changes in the constitution ratified by an elected parliament. Most political observers fear that the military government might try to manipulate the elections, but any such action is bound to fuel public discontent threatening his own survival in power.

What is more worrying is the prospect that the “rigged elections” will be rejected outright by all the mainstream political parties. An engineered election result is bound to further unite all political parties spreading opposition to the military to all segments of society. Most political observers agree that it may lead to a direct showdown between the people and the military and such a situation could weaken the military’s support for General Musharraf.

As one ex-military chief said: “The best service General Musharraf can perform for Pakistan is to hold free and fair elections and ensure that power is transferred to those who get elected.”

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.