Frontline Volume 19 - Issue 18, August 31 - September 13, 2002
India's National Magazine
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PAKISTAN

The military republic

The amendments to the 1973 Constitution announced by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf institutionalise the role of the armed forces in the country's governance.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY
in Islamabad

"EVERY country has an Army but the Pakistan Army has a country." Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf reinforced this cynical view about the role of the Pakistan military in the affairs of the country when on August 21 he unveiled a set of amendments to the suspended 1973 Constitution. In fact, Musharraf even strengthened this perception and went a step ahead by giving the country a new Constitution. Rebuffing appeals and counsel from all quarters, he formalised the role of the Army in the country's governance. To top it all, he came forward with an argument few people in Pakistan would find easy to counter: "If you want to keep the Army out, you have to keep it in." Apparently, the commando-soldier, who declared himself to be the President and the Chief of the Army Staff until 2007 by means of the changes in the Constitution, would be remembered for this quotable quote.

It is true that the Army has been in the forefront of political affairs in Pakistan since 1958, directly or otherwise. Yet no one institutionalised its role in governance the way Musharraf has. In the run-up to the so-called debate on the statute changes, he lost no opportunity to emphasise why no one should fight shy of acknowledging the central role of the Army in Pakistani politics.

B.K. BANGASH/AP
President General Pervez Musharraf at the August 21 media conference.

As Musharraf put it bluntly at his 'historic' news conference in the national capital, where he announced the 'revolutionary' changes in the Constitution, the Army has always been there. Willy-nilly, the very political parties that are now crying foul have dragged it into the affairs of the country. Reacting to questions whether he was not legitimising the role of military, Musharraf said: "As the Chief of the Army Staff during the tenure of Nawaz Sharif, I must have visited the Prime Minister's office/house at least fifty, or maybe even hundred times, to sort out some crisis or the other. So, what are we talking about?"

Not many people in Pakistan would dispute his statement. An overwhelming majority of the people, including the intelligentsia, had actually welcomed the October 1999 military coup and seen it as a great relief from the tyrannical rule of Nawaz Sharif. But critics of Musharraf are deeply disappointed about the way the General has gone about setting things right. One legal expert, who did not want to be identified, said: "The remedy suggested by the General is worse than the disease."

The role of the Army has been sanctified by the Constitution through the establishment of the National Security Council (NSC). The NSC will have the President as its Chairperson, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the three Service chiefs as its members. Ostensibly a consultative body, it will deal with matters pertaining to the "sovereignty, integrity and security" of the state.

On the face of it, this sounds logical. But in reality it is a 'super Parliament'. The jurisdiction of the NSC is all-pervasive because what constitutes "sovereignty, integrity and security" cannot be defined. By conferring all powers on the office of the President and by including the heads of all the three wings of the armed forces in the ruling establishment, Musharraf has virtually converted Pakistan into a 'military-guided democracy'. The Army chief has always been a major power centre in the country, but it is for the first time that the chiefs of the Air Force and the Navy have been brought centrestage.

The new powers of the President include those to dissolve the National Assembly at his/her 'discretion', to appoint Governors and to dissolve Provincial Assemblies in consultation with them; and to appoint the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the three Service chiefs in consultation with the Prime Minister. Musharraf claimed that the changes were intended to introduce a system of checks and balances among the three 'power brokers' - the President, the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Army Staff.

The dominant view in political and other circles in the country is that the new Parliament and Prime Minister would be mere 'dummies'. By declaring that there was no need for him to get the amendments or his position as President ratified by Parliament, Musharraf has strengthened this impression. He is deemed to have been elected President for a further period of five years from October 2002 through the controversial referendum held in April. His continuation as President is now part of the new Constitution.

The only concession Musharraf has given to the critics of the statute amendment package is the expansion of the civilian component of the NSC. Besides the President and the representatives of the armed forces, it will also consist of the Prime Minister, the Chief Ministers of the four provinces, the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, and the Leader of the Senate.

Musharraf conceded that the new Parliament would have the powers to roll back the amendments. He said: "If the new Parliament decides to reverse the amendments, either I have to go or it has to go." However, having armed himself with the power to dissolve the National Assembly, it is clear what will happen in such a situation.

Among the other important features introduced into the Constitution include an amendment to Article 63 to debar loan defaulters, beneficiaries of written-off loans, absconders, criminals and utility bill defaulters from contesting elections. Political parties criticised the proposal as being aimed at former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. The offices of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan and the local bodies system have been placed under Schedule Six to provide them constitutional protection. Other provisions put in Schedule Six include the grant of autonomous status to the Election Commission of Pakistan, the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, an increase in the number of general seats in the National and Provincial Assemblies and the Senate, reservation of seats for women in the National and Provincial Assemblies and the Senate, reservation of 10 seats for non-Muslims, restoration of the joint electorate system and the fixing of graduation as the minimum qualification to contest elections to the National and Provincial Assemblies.

Supporting his contention that the whole exercise was the outcome of month-long consultations, Musharraf said he had only incorporated one-third of the original proposals.

The battle lines are drawn between the majority of the political parties and Musharraf. Most of the parties see the amendments as a switch-over from the parliamentary to the presidential form of government and have vowed to 'undo' them in the new Parliament. As things stand, the package of amendments could be a major election issue. The reaction of the Pakistan People's Party to the changes reflected the sentiments of the majority of the parties and civil society. It said: "No individual has any right to make amendments in the Constitution as constitutional amendments can be made only by the elected Parliament in accordance with the procedure laid down in the Constitution itself. Any other procedure adopted for it is illegal and unconstitutional."

Asma Jahangir, former Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said: "Musharraf's amendments will convert the people's Constitution of 1973 to a Constitution of the Generals and by the General. Perhaps the time has come for the armed forces to contest elections. Truly, then the country can officially be referred to as a General's republic as opposed to a banana republic."


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