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The General's scheme

Print edition : Apr 13, 2002 T+T-

In his quest for a tenure as President for a further five years, General Pervez Musharraf is seen as warming up to the religio-political groups before holding a referendum and then the general elections on his terms.

TO be or not to be the President, is no longer a question for Pervez Musharraf. Unmindful of all-round criticism, the General is resolute on a strategy that will get him a further five years in the top post. The means do not seem to matter and legal and constitutional niceties have little place in his scheme of things; so is the case with the disturbing ground realities.

Musharraf has chosen the path of referendum to seek the mandate of the people - as the previous military rulers. A la General Zia-ul-Haq and Field Marshal Ayub Khan, he seems to have decided on the well-trodden path of former military dictators though he had made it clear to a group of Pakistani editors a few days earlier that he would not like to be compared with the two. Besides the question of his own continuation, the referendum is likely to seek approval on the political and economic reforms undertaken and proposed by his government. Whether he will prove to be different and more pro-people is all that remains to be seen amid the disturbing signs that his regime is warming up to at least the moderates among the religious groups in the country.

Who can dispute the fact that any country will be better off with a thinking President, but what does Musharraf think? Going by pre-referendum and pre-poll indicators, he aspires, for one, to be the most powerful President Pakistan has seen and to have an all-powerful National Security Council, headed by the President and dominated by a chosen lot that includes the military top brass, overlooking the Prime Minister and the National Assembly. And all this at a time when the religious extremists and the jehadi elements are back in business. The chilling attack on March 17 on a church in the high-security diplomatic enclave of Islamabad, metres away from the embassy of the United States, in which five people including two Americans were killed, is a sign that these elements are not just alive but kicking. It was also an open challenge to Musharraf's determination to wipe out extremism from Pakistani society. The challenge is compounded by the U.S. decision, dubbed by some people as an over-reaction, to declare Pakistan 'a non-family station' and evacuate diplomats' families and non-essential diplomatic staff on an emergency basis.

This is the same Bush administration that has been hailing the General as a brave ally in combating terrorism, ever since September 11. In fact, the high that started for the General with his new status vis-a-vis the U.S. since September 11, might just be beginning to be tempered with the hot pursuit of the Al Qaeda operatives spilling over to Pakistan. The billion-dollar question is, why did the U.S. decide to act in this manner, particularly when senior functionaries in the Bush administration insist that it is no reflection on the ability of the Musharraf government to protect U.S. interests, or a commentary on the security environment in Pakistan? There is little doubt that the U.S. action is undermining the position of Musharraf. The bigger danger is that it could trigger a chain reaction, particularly among the Western allies of the U.S.

It is this scenario that makes everyone wonder about the refusal of Musharraf to work with mainstream political parties at home. He has already declared that the leaders of the two most popular political parties have no role to play in the political set-up he envisages in the promised general elections in October. He has categorically denied that any of the two former Prime Ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, will return to the country to occupy a place in the future 'democratic' set-up. He has also made it clear that he will not be another rubber-stamp President once the elections are over. Having virtually banned over 90 per cent of the people from contesting the elections by introducing a minimum qualification of graduation, he has rendered the whole electoral exercise into a game that suits him.

MUSHARRAF'S plans to opt for the referendum route has been flayed by the national media which said that he was out to follow the "farcical route to legitimacy" taken by previous military rulers. Ijazul Haq, a faction leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), and son of the former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, was among the leaders of various parties who met Musharraf in recent days to discuss the referendum plan. Haq, a Minister in Nawaz Sharif's Cabinet, joined the breakaway faction that supported the present government.

As one newspaper pointed out, "Both Ayub and Zia had 'won' their respective referendums hands down, like so many dictators regularly do in the Middle East (West Asia) and Africa. Ayub secured 95.06 per cent votes in the February 1960 referendum, in which the nation's 80,000 Basic Democrats constituted the Electoral College." The daily said: "In Zia- ul-Haq's farce, the entire nation was supposed to have given him a 97.71 per cent 'yes' vote. Actually, less than 15 per cent of the eligible voters cast their votes. All these devices failed to satisfy the world that the two got what they wanted - legitimacy. The only legitimate route for the General to take is the democratic route for the transfer of power. The Supreme Court's mandate is not only for the holding of general election by October 2002, but binds General Musharraf to transfer power from the military to the elected representatives by the coming October."

The newspaper remarked that the only choice before him was to go back to the barracks after the elections, adding that if, after retirement from the Army and completing the two-year mandatory "silence", he feels that he can be of service to the nation, then he can join a political party or float one of his own and contest a presidential election.

In its front-page comment, The Nation said Gen. Zia went in for the referendum in 1984 seeking a mandate on the platform "Islamisation". However, despite claims of a 93 per cent approval, "many observers had questioned these figures", the newspaper said.

WHY is Musharraf so keen on a referendum before general elections? There are several theories.

First, the legal position. Under the suspended 1973 Constitution, members of the National and Provincial Assemblies form the electoral college that elects the President. Musharraf appointed himself President after the incumbent at that time, Rafiq Tarar 'ceased' to be the President. That was a few days before the Agra Summit. The ingenious argument put forward to justify Tarar's removal was that since the National and Provincial Assemblies that elected him stood dissolved, he could no longer continue in office.

Political parties of all hues in Pakistan insist that only members of the National and Provincial Assemblies can elect a President, as envisaged in the Constitution. But the legal luminaries of the Musharraf government differ on this. The newly appointed Law Minister Khalid Ranjha has asserted that in the absence of the National and Provincial Assemblies, election through a referendum is an option. And the debate goes on.

Musharraf does not want to take any chances by leaving his election to the Assemblies as and when they are constituted. He is conscious of the fact that the international community (read the U.S.) needs him in pursuing its agenda in the region and will endorse his political plans. More important, as an elected President, he would have all the bargaining power and leverage required in the constitution of a government acceptable to him after the October general elections.

Now, on the question of Musharraf's insistence on not allowing Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to contest the general elections. He told Malini Parthasarathy, Executive Editor of The Hindu, in an exclusive interview on March 28: "So, when we see that I see that these 12 years of ruin that was done by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, they certainly have no place in Pakistan. I don't want them to come and plunder this country" (The Hindu, April 1).

Expectedly, this remark provoked a violent reaction. The parties of Sharif and Benazir dubbed it 'unconstitutional' and said that their leaders were determined to defy the ban. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto, and the PML, led by Sharif, described it as an attempt to undermine any return to full democracy and said that by barring them Musharraf was attempting to ensure victory for his own people who would endorse his plan to remain in power. PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar said: "All dictators in the past have made similar tall claims. They discredit public representatives but when the people speak, they are swept away and confined to the dustbin of history."

The PPP noted that the Benazir-led party is the front-runner for the general elections scheduled for October. It said that a person who had taken power by suspending the Constitution and declaring himself President and Chief Executive and conferred benefits on himself by doubling his salary and perquisites was hardly in a position to tell the nation who should be allowed to contest.

The party said that upon hearing the news, Benazir Bhutto had remarked that Gen. Zia too said that "he would stop me from contesting because he feared the love of the people of Pakistan for me and my love for them. The will of God was such that it was Zia who went and the PPP that came. If anyone tries to stop the path of the people from choosing a leader and a government of their choice, they will be the ones to go."

A SECTION of Pakistan's civil society is disturbed not only by the moves of Musharraf to legitimise his position but also by what they perceive as efforts by the regime to placate the moderate elements among religious parties and groups. In its latest report the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed its concern over recent developments and complained that the government was not doing enough to take on the extremist elements.

In an incisive report, the leading Pakistani daily The News analysed the endeavours by the government to win back the moderate religious elements who have been alienated. The decision of the government to release the leaders of all major religious parties who were detained at the height of the unrest over the U.S. military action in Afghanistan in October last year and the new amnesty scheme for the release of all activists of banned militant organisations, against whom no cases are pending, were cited as evidence of the new line of thinking.

The newspaper said that the new strategy was a response to the emerging situation, particularly in the light of the spurt in acts of sectarian violence and terror strikes on selected targets, such as the March 17 attack on the church in Islamabad. It said that Musharraf was determined to keep Pakistan on a course of moderation but at the same time did not want to see any confrontation between the military government and the clergy.

It said that in recent days Musharraf had personally ordered the release of more than 1,000 individuals who had been arrested from all over the country during the crackdown on the extremist religious groups in January this year. An estimated 2,000 activists of the five banned sectarian and militant organisations were taken into custody after the January 12 address of Musharraf.

Pakistan's Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haider, announced that amnesty scheme for the detained activists under which those against whom there are no cases pending are to be released. "We don't want to give an impression that only religiously motivated people are liable for terrorist acts in Pakistan," the newspaper quoted a senior official as saying.

In a reconciliatory signal to religio-political forces, the Musharraf administration approved the release of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, chief of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam, and Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Fazl and Qazi, the leaders of two of the largest religio-political parties, had led agitations against Musharraf's 'pro-U.S.' policies before their arrest in October last year. Former Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who was detained under the Maintenance of Pubic Order (MPO) decree for making inflammatory speeches, was freed following court orders as the government had not made out any concrete charges against him.

The News said that while waving a white flag to the religio-political groups, it seemed that the government had also extended an olive branch to the jehadi organisations, which largely benefited from the amnesty schemes. It further said that a senior Punjab Police official had confirmed on April 1 that no criminal charges had been brought against Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Muhammad or Hafiz Muhammad Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Toiba or any other top leader of the banned jehadi groups.

The newspaper said that acting on advance information, the guerilla commanders and the militant cadre of all jehadi organisations had gone into hiding before Musharraf's January 12 speech. Later, the top leaders of these groups offered themselves for arrest. They were all detained in government-run non-prison facilities. "This was a goodwill signal from the government to contain the reaction from the well-armed and trained jehadi elements," it said quoting the Punjab Police official.

The News said that while the government tried to mend fences with the religious lobby, it had issued fresh orders to the local governments and to Pakistan Television to ensure that "Western culture" is not promoted through television programmes and music and stage shows in major cities. "Pakistani and Islamic heritage and traditions must be adhered to in all public functions and cultural programmes," say the government's instructions publicised through the media. The unprecedented government order came as reports poured in about open-air public functions on New Year's eve and during the kite-flying festival of Basant, where inebriated men and women danced to the tunes of Western popular songs.

The report said that the police and security agencies had picked up disturbing signals that suggested that breakaway elements from at least five banned extremist religious groups were gearing up for a violent campaign to prevent the administration from shaping the image of a liberal and progressive Islamic state for Pakistan. These facts emerged during the interrogation of scores of suspected religious individuals who were detained in various Punjab cities and Karachi by the intelligence branches of the police during the course of investigations into the spate of sectarian murders and the Daniel Pearl case.

"For the investigators of the Pearl murder case or the sectarian murders in Karachi, the church bombing does not come as a surprise," said an official of the Sindh police in Karachi. "What would you do with a religiously charged group that creates chaos in the country just to destabilise the government?" A Punjab police official said: "At the top level Jaish, Lashkar, Harkat, Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi may be distinct organisations but at the ground level their elements now share their knowledge and expertise to destabilise the government."

According to the report, Pakistan's Interior Ministry had estimated that at least 5,000 religiously motivated Pakistanis, trained in guerilla warfare, were registered with these five core Sunni militant groups. These groups share strong anti-Shia, anti-U.S., anti-Musharraf and pro-Taliban views. The report, which quoted officials, said that for the first time in several decades fissures had emerged in the relationship between the religious groups - always trusted by the Army on national security issues - and the military/security services, which are still struggling to adjust to the paradigm shift announced in Pakistan's national security policies after September 11.

In contrast to the manner in which the rally organised by the mainstream political parties was thwarted, the Jamaat-e-Islami was allowed to hold a large public meeting in Rawalpindi. More important according to the Quazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the President has sought a meeting with him to discuss his political plans.

The United States would certainly be concerned if the reports about the Musharraf regime's efforts to keep the moderate religious elements happy are true. The extradition of Omar Sheikh, the main suspect in the Pearl murder case, is another tricky issue between Pakistan and the U.S. Islamabad insists that it would try Omar within Pakistan, while Washington wants him extradited. To say the least, the coming days and weeks promise to be eventful.