A Way out for Pakistan
Daily Times, June 17, 2007
The government should commit to holding parliamentary and provincial elections first, and to allowing the two exiled former prime ministers to return and lead their respective political parties
A political crisis is an extremely volatile and uncertain situation that threatens to disrupt the routine patterns of governance and management in a political system. If the situation does not quickly return to normal, the existing political arrangements and rulers often become dysfunctional, setting the stage for major leadership and institutional changes.
Political crises are endemic in countries like Pakistan, which have a poor track record of constitutionalism, political and cultural pluralism and political participation. Such political systems have a limited capacity to resolve the crisis or keep it within manageable limits. In Pakistan, governments have changed more frequently against the backdrop of domestic political crises than through elections.
It is not surprising that the prolongation of the judicial crisis in Pakistan has raised questions about the future of the Musharraf government. The situation has worsened so rapidly that General Pervez Musharraf’s political future has become no less important than the fate of the suspended chief justice. Therefore, the crisis is likely to persist even if the government withdraws the reference against the chief justice.
Some take the view that Pervez Musharraf will find it difficult to continue in office because the deepening crisis has undermined his capacity to govern. His support in circles that had hitherto stood behind him has dwindled. Many senior members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) are already shying away from openly backing him in the judicial crisis, amid pressure by the lawyers and the opposition political parties.
Another view is that the present government may defuse the crisis by offering political concessions to its political adversaries. However, Pervez Musharraf would not be able to retain his central pre-March-9 position in the political process. He will have to quit as army chief and step back from his enhanced role. If he is unwilling or unable to accept a diminished role, the crisis can escalate and he may lose power altogether.
Pakistan’s military rulers have traditionally not surrendered power until paralysed by an acute crisis. Ayub Khan resigned in the wake of a widespread and intense agitation. Yahya Khan had to resign when he faced a civil–military revolt after he lost the 1971 war to India. Zia-ul Haq would have faced an internal crisis after removing Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo from office in May 1988 and announcing his desire to hold party-less elections. He died in a mysterious air crash in August 1988.
Now, Pervez Musharraf is faced with an acute crisis as a consequence of his failed bid to remove the chief justice. He is expected to end up like his predecessors unless he recognises that the political arrangements put together by him after the October 2002 elections lack the capacity to address the current domestic crisis.
The current power structure, often described as the “Musharraf model of governance”, is narrow and suffers from a crisis of legitimacy. Its major features are: a concentration of power in the presidency, with backup from its army/intelligence and bureaucratic affiliates; induction of retired and serving military officers into important civilian institutions and thus an undermining of the latter’s autonomy; co-option of a section of the political elite, who are given a share of power and patronage in return for mobilising civilian support, on President Musharraf’s terms; a reluctant partnership with the Islamic parties, especially the Muttahida Mjalis-i-Amal (MMA), and soft-peddling towards Islamic groups; manipulation of the weak and divided political forces and exclusion of dissident political leaders. The government allowed a relative freedom to the print and electronic media to criticise its policies, but it came down hard on dissenters if they tried to organise themselves or to mobilise support.
The government was strengthened by its performance in the economic domain against the backdrop of foreign economic assistance in the post September 2001 period. However, the neglect of the distributive aspect of the economy accentuated socio-economic inequities.
The Musharraf government invoked civil and military state power to secure compliance or to dissuade people from collaborating with anti-government activists. Ambitious people could only advance their careers by getting on the official bandwagon or by staying away from political activism. Civilian institutions and political and societal groups learnt that they could achieve their personal or organisational agendas either by adopting a pro-government profile or by maintaining a non-political profile, and this led to a crisis of confidence in them. Consequently, a large number of people avoided public criticism of the government, although they expressed strong reservations about the government policies in private conversation. This deliberate official policy to ‘de-politicise’ society made people feel helpless about changing the political order. Dissident political parties found it extremely difficult to mobilise support because the people were not convinced that confrontation served any purpose.
The government’s policy of discouraging mobilisation on purely political and economic issues and the crisis of confidence in civilian institutions enabled conservative and hardline Islamic groups to step into the political void. They used conservative Islamic discourse to mobilise people who were looking for an intellectual framework for interpreting the national and international developments.
Political and social groups regained confidence only after the chief justice resisted the pressure of the top military and civilian establishment, and the lawyer community decided to challenge the government. They realised that the establishment was not invincible and that they could build pressure by collective political action. This amounted to re-discovering their power as people against the establishment. The current protest movement can be described as a manifestation of self-confidence on the part of political and societal forces, which have realised after a long time that they can be in the vanguard of political change.
The government is now facing several other challenges. Street protests on acute electricity shortages, the price hike in essential food items and deteriorating law and order situation are also bringing people out into the streets. Baloch dissidents are openly defying the government in Balochistan.
Pakistan’s multifaceted crisis cannot be resolved by the present power structure in Islamabad because the latter is geared towards seeking compliance rather than resolving problems through dialogue and political accommodation. Any attempt to deal with the present crisis by purely administrative and coercive measures will be counter-productive. The government’s threats to institute another reference against the chief justice or adopt tough measures against its political adversaries or the media would worsen the crisis and minimise chances of a peaceful and orderly political change.
There is no alternative to political accommodation between the government and the opposition, which will be facilitated if Pervez Musharraf declares that he would not seek re-election. This step may create a favourable environment for pursuing the recent proposal by Mushahid Hussain Syed, Secretary General of the ruling PML, to convene an all-parties conference for strengthening democracy.
The government should also commit to holding parliamentary and provincial elections first, and to allowing the two exiled former prime ministers to return and lead their respective political parties. This will quickly defuse the present crisis. Any attempt to protect and promote the existing power status quo in Islamabad is fraught with greater risks than effecting political changes though mutual consultations
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst