Pakistan in turmoil

Published : Dec 07, 2007 00:00 IST

Hopes of a peaceful transition to democracy recede as Musharraf converts the emergency into virtual martial law.

in IslamabadPolice officers in

Kafka would have loved this. After President Pervez Musharraf swore in a caretaker government headed by Muhammedmian Soomro on November 17, he offered some words of wisdom to the outgoing Pakistan Muslim League government. Life continues and nobody is permanent. One comes, one serves, one tries to do ones best in the interests of the nation, one leaves, he said.

Musharraf seemed not to realise the irony of these words. But then, the Pakistan ruler, who imposed emergency rule on November 3 ahead of a rumoured unfavourable verdict from the Supreme Court against his candidacy in the October 6 presidential election, firmly believes that his actions saved the country and put it back on the path to democracy.

Two weeks after he brought in the state of emergency and suspended the Constitution, thus virtually imposing martial law, Musharraf continued to defend his decision as the only course available to him in the best interests of Pakistan. His first steps after imposing the emergency were to dismiss all the judges of the higher judiciary; invite some to take the oath under a newly promulgated provisional constitutional order; lock up top lawyers, civil rights activists and other political opponents; and ban private television channels, eventually shutting down two of them. But, according to him, all this did not derail democracy. Instead, it helped prevent the Supreme Court from derailing democracy in Pakistan.

He had to take this action because the judges were threatening to frustrate his political push for democracy, with their confrontational attitude towards him. Their judgments had left the government and law administration officials demoralised and paralysed in the war against terror, and the terrorists encouraged. He held the judiciary responsible for worsening the law and order situation by ordering the release of terror suspects picked up by the intelligence agencies and also during the Lal Masjid crisis in Islamabad. He blamed the media, which he had freed and liberated, for reporting untruths and distortions and said they needed lessons in responsibility and that was why some channels had to be banned.

Now that the troublesome judges the source of the problem had been sacked and placed under house arrest, everything could go ahead as planned. He would get sworn in as President for his new term as soon the new-look Supreme Court gave him the go-ahead, stepping down as the army chief before he takes the oath of office. This he expects to happen by the end of November. The National Assembly finished its term on November 15 and elections are to be held, on schedule, in the first week of January 2008. Meanwhile, the war on terror could continue uninterrupted by the judiciary.

For Musharraf, this neat political calendar proves that the emergency has put democracy back on the rails. The Pakistan ruler has often said that his plan was to introduce democratic rule in Pakistan in three guided phases: the first phase was from October 1999, when he seized power after ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup, up to 2002, when I was in absolute control. The second phase was from 2002, when a government came in after elections and he took office as President, playing a supervisory role while remaining the Army chief. The third phase, which according to him will begin when he takes oath as the civilian President, will mark the beginning of the transition to full democratic rule.

But as Pakistan braces for elections under emergency rule and a relentless crackdown on Musharrafs political opponents, there are few takers for this story in the country or in the international community. The emergency is described as Musharrafs second coup, this time against the judiciary to pre-empt a verdict against him. Even schoolchildren say that he imposed the emergency only to hang on to power and not, as he claimed, because the country was in danger of being taken over by extremists owing to some Supreme Court judgments. People are demanding to know how, if deteriorating law and order situation due to the terrorist threat was one of the reasons for the emergency, the Army could make a bargain to release militants in exchange for the release of soldiers held hostage by pro-Taliban tribal people in the frontier areas even as they arrested moderate lawyers and civil rights activists. They ask why the army had taken so long to launch an operation against Mullah Fazlullah, a radical preacher in Swat in the North West Frontier Province, until his private army took control of large swathes of territory. They compare it to the six-month inaction in the case of Lal Masjid.

Musharraf has said that the emergency will help in conducting free and fair parliamentary elections, but no one is buying that. Prime Minister Muhammedmian Soomro, who heads the caretaker government, is a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), the ruling party since 2002, and is hardly seen as neutral.

Initially it looked as if Musharraf, despite his unpopularity in Pakistan, would still be able to come up trumps on his gamble of imposing the emergency. The reaction from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and its leader Benazir Bhutto was muted. Exiled to Jeddah, Nawaz Sharif could hardly be expected to whip up a storm against Musharraf, especially as his party had shown its inability to collect a respectable enough crowd even for his September 10 aborted return to Pakistan. The only resistance came from lawyers and civil society activists. But the police crackdown on protests meant fewer and fewer people were coming out on the streets to protest. Those who could mobilise crowds had been jailed on day one of the emergency. Their list included prominent lawyers such as Aitzaz Ahsan and office-bearers of bar associations countrywide. The government also placed Asma Jahangir, the prominent human rights activist, under house arrest.

Musharraf also brought in an amendment to the Army Act empowering military courts to try civilians for a range of offences from sedition, terrorism and the making of statements that could instigate public mischief. He denied that it was aimed at silencing critics and claimed that it was meant only to strengthen the governments hands against terrorism. But it was condemned by the opposition parties and international human rights organisations as a reaffirmation that the emergency was indeed martial law.

General Pervez Musharraf

However, sometime in the second week of the emergency, Musharrafs position began looking shaky. His first real setback came with an apparent turnaround by Benazir. With the leader of the largest political party in Pakistan signalling that she had broken off all contacts with Musharraf for a possible power-sharing deal and that was ready for battle along with other opposition political parties against Musharraf, the General looked to be in real trouble. Benazir and Sharif, as well as leaders of other parties such as the Jamat-i-Islami, talked about the possibility of jointly boycotting elections. For the first time, a rainbow coalition of the opposition began to look like a possibility.

International pressure too advanced on Musharraf in a pincer movement with Benazirs opposition. The Commonwealth, which expelled Pakistan for four years in 1999 when Musharraf seized power from Sharif, threatened to do it again if the General did not roll back the emergency and restore the Constitution and set him a 10-day deadline that is due to expire on November 23. But the country that really counts for Pakistan is the United States, which has the power to squeeze Musharraf if it wants to by turning off the money tap, out of which $10 billion has already gushed out since 9/11.

In the days immediately after the coup, Washington gave out mixed signals, expressing disapproval of the emergency but making it clear that it was still throwing its weight behind Musharraf, a trusted ally in the war on terror, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior figures in the Bush administration described him. But by the end of the second week of the emergency, very different signals were emerging from Musharrafs most important international ally.

The George Bush administration backed a Benazir-Musharraf alliance as the best course for a stable Pakistan and, by extension, for its war on terror. But with that idea looking shaky, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte arrived in Islamabad with a strong message for President Musharraf to lift the emergency immediately, step down as Army chief, remove the restrictions on the media and release all political prisoners. He was also expected to convey that the U.S. was evaluating the aid to Pakistan in the light of the emergency, even as Benazir demanded that Washington must threaten Musharraf with the suspension of financial assistance. It is not clear whether her new confrontationist position is a result of her reading of the tea leaves in Washington and sensing that the Bush administration is now resigned to change, or whether the U.S. stills sets store by a Benazir-Musharraf power-sharing deal and sent Negroponte to explore whether that is still in the realm of the possible.

Increasingly, the focus is on the role of the Pakistan Army and its likely reaction if the opposition joins hands to oust Musharraf. Will it continue to stick with its chief?

Observers of the Pakistan military are divided on this. According to one school of thought, articulated in a recent editorial in The Friday Times, Musharraf went to the extent of naming his successor as Army chief, and continues to insist that he will shed his uniform to become a civilian President, only because he is confident that the army will never turn against him. If he suspected otherwise, he would not have done this. Nor would he have risked imposing a virtual martial law, in defiance of opinion at home and abroad.

The Armys loyalty to him is said to spring from its deep apprehension that handing over power to politicians can only worsen the dangers that Pakistan is facing to its integrity from Islamist, Al Qaeda-inspired militants who already control considerable territory inside Pakistan and a simmering insurgency in Balochistan while the presence of U.S.-led coalition troops on the Afghan border constitutes a threat to the countrys sovereignty. This school argues that the military wants a civilian that it can trust, and Musharraf is their candidate for a powerful President. Musharraf himself said in an interview that the Army had such faith in his leadership that it was impossible that it would move against him.

But another school of thought believes that if the Army begins to sense that its reputation as an institution is becoming damaged through Musharraf, it may act to save itself. In this, the role of General Ashfaq Kayani, who is the new Vice-Chief of the Army Staff and the named successor to Musharraf when he steps down as the Army chief, is said to be crucial.

Kayani owes his rise in the Army to Musharraf, but he is also believed to be close to Benazir, whom he served as military secretary during her first term as Prime Minister. His rapport with Benazir is said to be one reason that Musharraf named him his successor, to prepare the ground for a power-sharing deal with Benazir, and ensure a smooth working relationship between the troika of the President, the army chief and the Prime Minister. Kayani was also one of the principal negotiators with Benazir he was then heading the Inter-Services Intelligence as the two sides hammered out the deal.

At a press conference, replying to a question about a possible withdrawal of support by the army to Musharraf, Benazir did not answer the question directly but made an appeal to the army in her own garrulous way. She said she was sure that the army commanders, corps commanders, the vice-chief and the intelligence chief understood the gravity of the situation.

I am sure they have loyalty to Gen. Musharraf. I am sure they respect him because he is the army chief, but it is a very difficult time for them when they have to choose perhaps between loyalty to the country and loyalty to an individual.

In Quetta on

Expressing respect for Kayani, Benazir said she had not had the opportunity to meet him after her return to Pakistan. What I like to look at is the national interest. I like to see on which road the national interest is propelling me, and I assume that for the military leadership that is also the issue. Where is the national interest propelling them? Because it is the interests that need to coincide. I cant speak for him but I can say from my interactions with a lot of people there is an emotional tug going on. Not with Kayani but with many others I met because some do love Musharraf. They do understand he has made some tough decisions when it was difficult to make those choices but there is time when you think of the nation. The time is now. Our army commanders must think of the nation. I would appeal to them to think about the national interest.

In the last few months, beginning with Musharrafs misjudged attempt to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary from the equation, through the lawyers agitation for Chaudharys reinstatement, his triumphant comeback to the Supreme Court, and its subsequent confrontation with the executive, political debate in Pakistan was divided between transformationists and transitionists.

The transitionists wanted compromise with Musharraf and the military as the best way towards a civilian democracy, while the transformationists wanted a radical confrontation with the regime and the military for a democratic revolution. For the transitionists, confrontation would plunge Pakistan into a bottomless abyss of militancy and extremism as Islamist radicals would rush into the turmoil and occupy all the political space. They applauded Benazir for her political acumen in doing a deal with Musharraf, and warned that needling him would result in martial law or emergency rule. One sentence that came up in conversations with transitionists as the Supreme Court issued one anti-government order after the other was: The judges are asking for it.

The transformationists, on the other hand, argued that confrontation was the only way Pakistan could be jolted out of a 60-year-old failure to build a democratic nation. We have been transititioning to democracy forever. Its now or never, they said, dismissing the transitionists as stooges of the military, as they egged on the judiciary to take on Musharraf and the Generals.

Hopes for the kind of transition envisaged by the Benazir-Musharraf deal are receding, and the chances of a political confrontation between Musharraf and his political opponents are increasing. Pakistanis are praying that even if there is to be a transformation to democratic rule, it must be peaceful.

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