A convoluted road map

Print edition : September 01, 2001

Does Gen. Pervez Musharraf's outline of Pakistan's transition to democracy hide more than it reveals?

When he dismissed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif unceremoniously on October 12, 1999, Gen. Pervez Musharraf had painted himself as the reluctant messiah of an oppressed, cheated and neglected people. In the same breath he had promised to bolster the economy and strengthen democracy. In a nation ruled as much by military dictators as by elected governments, the General had to prove himself different from the previous military rulers.

President Pervez Musharraf hoists the national flag at the Presidential Palace in Islamabad on August 14.-B.K. BANGASH/AP

Whether it was international pressure, compulsions of economic survival or his own need for legitimacy, he allowed freedom of the press and promised time-bound elections. But there was the surprise ascent to the presidency and a failed summit with India. Then, on August 14 (Independence Day) President Pervez Musharraf unveiled the latest road map to democracy. The government would achieve this objective through a strategic plan comprising four phases within the parameters laid down by the Supreme Court, he claimed.

But the so-called road map has raised more questions than it has answered. The return-to-democracy plot is so full of twists and turns that no one has a clue what it will look like exactly 14 months down the line. Part of the reason for the doubts about Gen. Musharraf's intentions is the systematic manner in which he has gone about consolidating his position and eliminating potential rivals.

Even as the Supreme Court set a date for the return to democracy, Musharraf struck a deal with Nawaz Sharif for the former Prime Minister to leave the country and its politics. While the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) kept debating the impending return of its leader, Benazir Bhutto, another former Prime Minister, the military government piled case after case on her and threatened to arrest her if she stepped on Pakistani soil.

Amidst the political vacuum created and sustained by the Army, the military regime held an array of elections to local bodies in various parts of the country over the past year. The legitimacy of the elections was questioned because they were not fought on party lines, but the government claimed that it had set the ball rolling for the return to a civilian set-up.

Musharraf's road map is not just convoluted but also very confusing, to say the least. Phase One entailed devolution of power to the local level by August 14, 2001. No one knows what the status of the new local government system will be once general elections are held. It is bound to be a parallel power structure that will at some stage come into conflict with provincial and federal governments of the future. More important, does Pakistan, which is facing a severe resource crunch, have the economic resources to sustain yet another layer of government?

MEANWHILE, the military government believes that it is now time for Phase Two, which involves preparation for national, provincial and senatorial elections during the period from October 1, 2001 to June 30, 2002. This will include constitution of an Election Commission by October 2001, delimitation of constituencies, announcement of constitutional amendments and completion of electoral rolls. But why does the Election Commission have to be constituted afresh if the earlier one was good enough to conduct the polls to the local bodies?

Phase Three, which is from July 1, 2002 to October 12, 2002, will see the start of the election process to the Provincial and National Assemblies and the Senate. The road map is complete with tentative dates: July 10-11 for announcement for general elections; August 1 for notification of the election schedule by the Election Commission; August 7 for filing of nomination papers and scrutiny, followed by the publication of the final list of candidates, allocation of symbols, printing of ballot papers, nomination of returning officers and designation of polling stations. The elections are to be held between October 1 and 11.

The final phase includes transfer of power between October and November 2002, oath-taking by elected members, election of Speakers and Deputy Speakers of Assemblies and Chairman of the Senate, and formation of Federal and Provincial governments.

Newly elected councillors, seated behind Army officers, take part in the 54th anniversary celebrations of the country's independence.-B.K. BANGASH/AP

The road map ends with a scheduled "Address by the President to a Joint Session of Parliament", as proposed by the President in his August 14 address to the nation. It does not say anything about the role and future of Musharraf himself. He appointed himself President by virtue of being the Chief Executive under the Provincial Constitutional Order (PCO) promulgated by the Army after the 1999 coup. How does he intend to continue in office after the general elections?

The General's back-office seems to have done its job to the last detail, but the positive reaction it was looking for did not come. For one, it left a very important point untouched - whether the elections will be on party lines at all.

It was left to the U.S. State Department to point out the 'omission'. The chief spokesman of the military, Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, clarified after a gap of four days that political parties would be allowed to take part in the elections. He condescendingly declared that the ban on political activities would be lifted 90 days prior to the elections and political parties would have all the freedom to campaign. But politicians who had been convicted by the courts in various cases would not be allowed to contest, he said. The reference was obviously to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

The general belief is that the period between revealing the road map and embarking on it will be spent looking for an amicable political leadership that will stick to any fresh 'deals' with the military regime and thus help the general with his own legitimacy. At least this is how democracy has always worked in Pakistan. It will also be the time for many proposed 'constitutional amendments'. Now that the military ruler is the President, the amendments could be aimed at bringing new checks for a civilian government.

It is not as if civilian rulers do not need checks and balances, but who will checkmate the checkers? Dawn pointed out in an editorial that any arbitrary changes to the Constitution would unsettle a number of vital compromises and make any fresh understanding on these highly uncertain.

This is the opinion of not only the centrist parties but also the religio-political organisations and outfits with parochial inclinations. They fear that the government is keen on making changes to the basic document that would go against the grain of the federal and parliamentary system. Creating a National Security Council as a check on the Prime Minister would be one such change.

Scheduling the elections at the end of the Supreme Court's deadline for return to democracy, also strengthens the notion that the President is not sure about the role of political parties in the tragi-comedy that is Pakistan's politics today. Of course, the fact is that democracy and the common Pakistani are the tragic anti-heroes in this drama of high-stakes and slow, nail-biting denouement.

ROAD maps and long waits for restoration of democracy are nothing new in Pakistan. General Yahya Khan allowed almost a year after announcing his road map or the Legal Framework Order (LFO). General Ayub Khan started his re-election campaign two years in advance in the garb of a year long 'Decade for Development'. It was meant to 'educate the people about achievements' in that period since presidential elections were to be held in 1969.

Gen. Zia-ul Haq announced a road map spread over 18 months beginning on August 14, 1983, and ending with the elections in March 1985. The emphasis then too was on phases starting with local polls followed by non-party elections, with a mass agitation thrown in.

The fact that there will be a long wait before the military government holds six rounds of elections - to the National Assembly, the Senate and four Provincial Assemblies - over 10 days, has also spawned the view that Gen. Musharraf is planning a long innings at the helm. Former Information Minister Mushahid Hussain pointed out in an article in The Nation that the road map was after all part of the same speech in which the President announced a 10-year schedule for development projects. The article went on to say that some hardened cynics had likened the road map to that famous description of a bikini, 'What it reveals is suggestive, what it conceals is vital'. It reveals Musharraf's intentions regarding his person and the poll schedule, but what is that vital part that it conceals?

Hussain listed a few of the facts that were 'concealed' or missed out. To begin with it did not say whether the political parties will participate, and what kind of constitutional amendments are being envisaged. It concealed the precise date and mode of transfer of power, relegating this key aspect to Phase Four. The road map also did not say when political activities would be allowed.

Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi later clarified about the party-based nature of the elections and also announced a time-frame of 90 days for pre-poll activities. Without this the entire exercise would have lost all credibility.

Political activity was banned, ostensibly as a 'temporary law and order' measure, prior to U.S. President Bill Clinton's five-hour stopover en route to Washington in March last year, and the ban has remained. Incidentally, it was during this stopover that the U.S. President asked the General for a road map to democracy.

Where does the road map leave the Army? As Talat Masood, a retired Lieutenant-General, stated in an article published in Dawn: "The Army's increased induction into civilian tasks seems to have acquired a momentum of its own. Encouraged by their real or assumed initial successes, Army personnel keep on widening their role."

The fundamental question is: where should the political and administrative involvement of the armed forces begin and where and at what stage should it end? Granted that it could not have remained a silent spectator to political turmoil and chaos and economic meltdown, but a saving and reversing role such as the present one can at best be for a short period and in limited areas. Otherwise, it would further weaken the growth of civil institutions and damage the armed forces' own professional capacity.

Masood also raised the issue of the constitutional changes that are likely. The Constitution has often been trifled with, he said, and called for party-based elections and a true transfer of power to the people. Notwithstanding their past failures, parties such as the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League could become national assets if they were allowed to evolve, he said.

As for the kind of democracy that will emerge after the October 2002 polls, Mushahid Hussain contemplates the following: genuine parliamentary democracy; French-style dominant presidency, but a fairly strong Prime Minister as well; a variation of the Turkish and Indonesian models; or a return to the 1985 Ziaist model. He went on to state:

"If indicators are anything to go by, Pakistan could end up with a structure that was originally envisaged in Gen. Zia's March 1985 Restoration of Constitution Order (RCO) but which was shot down by the National Assembly after an intense 45-minute debate.

"A khaki President, a khaki-tinted Constitution, a khaki-dominated National Security Council, a khaki-run accountability process that would also 'vet' politicians before they are permitted into the political arena, and a khaki-backed local government structure in which the Army Monitoring Team will 'assist' each Nazim under a new, more politically correct nomenclature, that is District Support Team. If this were to come to pass, with the clock being turned back to March 1985, then this would not be a new system of 'checks and balances', rather it would be a new experiment of quasi-democracy with an intrusive khaki that has shades of Indonesia under Gen. Suharto."

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor