One step forward, two backward

Print edition : February 02, 2002

The international community looks the other way as President Musharraf introduces sweeping electoral reforms in order to tighten his grip on power.

FIVE days after his famous January 12 speech, hailed the world over as 'revolutionary and historic', President General Pervez Musharraf disqualified over 90 per cent of the people of Pakistan from contesting elections. There was not a word of criticism from the international community, a euphemism for the United States and its allies.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.-REUTERS

On January 16, through an executive order, Musharraf made graduation the minimum qualification to contest in elections to the National and Provincial Assemblies, which he said would be held in October this year.

Why did the international community choose not to react to the order? One can argue that it was an internal matter of Pakistan. Then, by the same logic, it could be argued that the 1999 military coup was also an internal affair. In 1999, the international community was livid. The Commonwealth suspended Pakistan from all its committees and announced that its continuation as a full-fledged member would be conditional on its return to democracy. Stopping short of snapping diplomatic ties, practically the whole world declared the military regime an untouchable.

The disqualification of over 90 per cent of Pakistanis to contest elections is just one of the several dramatic changes Musharraf has brought about in the 'political landscape' of Pakistan in the last few months. The international community's indifference to these developments shows how hollow its commitment to the restoration of 'real democracy' is.

There is little doubt that Musharraf has an uncanny sense of timing. He unveiled the sweeping electoral reforms even as the country was in the process of absorbing the implications of his January 12 speech targeting terrorism within the country. It was not the first time that the General took advantage of the prevailing mood within and outside the country. Less than a year after he took over the reins, he amended the Political Parties Act through an executive order in order to debar politicians convicted by courts at any level from not only contesting elections but also holding party posts. The move was widely seen as an attempt to keep out of active politics Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, leaders of the two mainstream parties and former Prime Ministers. Bhutto, who heads the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), was convicted by a lower court in a corruption case in 1998 and has been in exile ever since. Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), was sentenced in several cases including one relating to the "hijacking" of the plane in which Musharraf was travelling.

Strangely, Sharif entered into a deal with the Musharraf government in December 2000 and left for Saudi Arabia with his family. Under the deal, he is not supposed to dabble in the internal politics of Pakistan for the next 10 years. Informed sources in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have confirmed the details of the deal.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.-REUTERS

Then, in what is described by many people as the 'second coup' by Musharraf, he cut short the term of President Rafiq Tarar in June 2001. The move came a few weeks after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee invited Musharraf to visit India. Tarar was asked to leave after the National and Provincial Assemblies were resolved. The argument was that once the term of the bodies that elected Tarar the constitutional head was over, he lost his right to continue in the post. No questions were raised about how the Chief of the Army appointed by Sharif could continue once the latter had ceased to be Prime Minister.

After dismissing Tarar, Musharraf played a masterstroke by using the Indian invitation to appoint himself President of Pakistan. The order to this effect issued by the Chief Executive (the title Musharraf assumed after he overthrew Sharif) did not specify any terms and conditions, including the length of his tenure.

In the normal course, Musharraf should have retired from service two and half months after the Agra Summit. However, he gave himself an indefinite extension. Days before his scheduled retirement in October, Musharraf declared at a news conference in Karachi that his services were indispensable to the people of Pakistan. Till date no one has a clue as to how long he wants to continue as the chief of the Pakistan Army. Recently, Musharraf said in an interview to a group of intellectuals from the United States and later to a newspaper based in the United Kingdom that he would continue as President for at least five more years after the general elections.

For several months President Musharraf has been talking about the need for a balance of power between the President and the Prime Minister in order to ensure that the latter does not misuse his powers. It reminds one of the famous Eighth Amendment, a legacy of the Zia-ul-Haq regime, which gave the President the powers to dismiss an elected government.

At an international conference in Islamabad, Musharraf said that his government was the 'most democratic' in the history of Pakistan. Musharraf qualified his claim by saying that his only disqualification was that he was a military man.

It is clear that the latest electoral reforms are meant to consolidate Musharraf's grip on the country and the political system before he holds general elections as mandated by the Supreme Court. With international attention focussed on the menace of terrorism and with the country's political parties in a state of dormancy, little opposition could be expected to the package of reforms.

Abolition of the separate electorate system (under which the religious minorities had to elect their own representatives), an increase in the strength of the National Assembly from 235 to 350 seats, and the introduction of graduation as the minimum educational qualification for contesting elections are the three main reforms. Other components of the package, which was released to the media by National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) chairman Tanvir Naqvi, include the delimitation of constituencies and reservation of 85 and 20 seats for women and technocrats respectively in the National Assembly. The quota for both women and technocrats will be filled through proportional representation on the basis of open party lists and the votes polled by the parties. Barring the decision to revert to the old system of joint electorate, all other changes are controversial and would affect the support base of the PPP and the PML.

A banner with the slogan "Pakistan Army, step forward. We are with you" at a rally in Peshawar.-HAIDER SHAH/ REUTERS

In fact, all the changes would require amendments to the Constitution, which is possible only after the general elections. The irony is that the National and Provincial Assemblies elected under the new rules will have to endorse them. Although the majority of the political parties argue that the military government does not have the mandate to amend the Constitution, Musharraf has gone ahead with the changes.

By reverting to the joint electorate system, the Musharraf government has sought to send out a signal to the world community that it is going the whole hog in taking on the religious Right. The separate electoral system was introduced by the Zia-ul-Haq regime in 1985 and the governments that succeeded it did not have the courage to reverse it for fear of incurring the wrath of the fundamentalists. In fact, even in the face of vociferous demands from the minority community and human rights organisations, the Musharraf government had rejected the demand for the re-introduction of the joint electorate system in the non-party elections to the local bodies held in 2001.

There has been serious concern in Pakistan ever the creation of a new power structure in the so-called local bodies. Political parties were barred from taking part in the polls on the grounds that they would 'restrict' the choice of the people and the same old 'corrupt faces' would be back in power. Now, a new power structure has been put in place and the district chiefs have been bestowed with enormous powers under a so-called devolution plan.

Moreover, it is not clear how the new power structure at the lowest level would co-exist with the traditional centres of political power represented by the National and Provincial Assemblies. On paper, the district Nazims (equivalent of Zilla Parishad chairpersons) are in charge of almost everything under his or her jurisdiction.

The Musharraf government has also reconstituted the Election Commission with retired Chief Justice Irshad Hassan Khan as its new chief. The Commission is expected to undertake a massive exercise of "delimitation". The exercise is viewed with great concern by the mainstream political parties as the number of votes and geographical areas of each constituency will be reduced significantly.

All the changes announced on January 16 are ostensibly in keeping with a promise made by Musharraf in his first speech to the nation on October 17, 1999. He had promised to introduce 'real democracy' by changing the present system, which, he said, helped bring up parliamentary dictators.

Meanwhile, the government's decisions have received mixed responses from the political and religious parties. While almost all the religious parties have opposed the idea of a joint electorate, political parties have by and large welcomed the move. The acting chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Munawwar Hasan, said that the Cabinet's decision in the name of electoral reforms was a step towards changing the Constitution. He described the government move as a "malicious design to deface the Constitution". Hasan said that the idea of a joint electorate was contrary to the nation's ideological foundation. The people of Pakistan would never allow the imposition of a 'secular agenda on foreign backing', he claimed.

Quami Jamhoori Party chairman Air Marshal Asghar Khan welcomed the decision and said that a joint electorate would eliminate the feelings of inferiority from the minorities.

There is a widespread feeling in Pakistani society that the international community has been more comfortable in dealing with a military or military-dominated regime than a civilian government. One can only hope that Washington will not prove it right once again.