October 11, 2007

Pakistan: Democracy comes to collect

General Musharraf wins another victory with an overwhelming majority of votes in a parliamentary ballot for the presidency. And while pro-democracy activists may be tempted to throw their towels in the ring, all is not lost: The general is considerably weakened and the public should not back down, not just yet. From ISA.

By ISA staff (11/10/07)

Democracy enjoys making fools of us all - when it comes calling to collect its dues. The necessary sacrifice of democracy, obviously inherent in the simple but vague description of its politics, is that it must cater to the wishes of the masses, regardless of whether they are up to the task of choosing their own leader and determining their own best interests.

If the dues are not paid voluntarily, democracy, if it has taken any root, will send out the collectors. The collectors have come calling for Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, whose attempts at an impossible military democracy cannot live much longer, despite his tooth-and-nail fight to prove otherwise.

Last week, Musharraf won an overwhelming majority in a parliamentary ballot for the presidency despite the fact that he has not relinquished his position as chief of the army when the holding of such dual positions flies in the face of the constitution. The outcome of that ballot is, however, not official, as the results are being withheld in the face of legal challenges to Musharraf's candidacy for president. The Supreme Court will hear the case on 17 October.

The opposition boycotted the ballot and, as such, the two votes that went to presidential candidate Justice (rtd) Wajihuddin Ahmed came as a surprise.

Though the parliamentary ballot was clearly a victory for Musharraf, the general is struggling to stay afloat and it seems that the public, relying in large part on a group of lawyers bent on seeing democratic values win out, has reached the limits of its patience. Ayaz Amir, arguably Pakistan's most revered columnist says, there is no need to be downcast.

In his latest column for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, he writes, in what seems in part conviction and in part a plea to the public to keep up the struggle: "Musharraf receives not a new lease of life. [...] He is about to don the robes of a tattered presidency. Pakistan, all said and done, is not Egypt and its people are not packhorses led by the nose here or there. They may tolerate tinpot dictators but not for long. […] Musharraf may cling to power as long as he may but to look at him and his enfeebled authority is to realize immediately that he is already a lame-duck, his ability much reduced to enforce his will."

In summing up his view of the current situation, which has left many pro-democracy figures in despair, Amir says we have "Dictatorship on the retreat, Musharraf's military trappings about to be mothballed, a ruling party in ferment, Benazir [Bhutto] feeling ditched and therefore fuming […] an army trying to gain lost respect, lawyers on the march, a media conscious of its power, a judiciary finally waking up to its responsibilities, and Justice Chaudhry still Chief Justice. A weakened presidency, an assertive judiciary: not bad at all."

In the meantime, Benazir Bhutto, the self-exiled head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), is planning to return to the country later this month. In return for easing corruption charges against her, she is clearly working to smooth Musharraf's reelection to the presidency and is expecting to assume the post of prime minister for her efforts. She was thrice dismissed from the premiership over corruption charges and, in 2006, Interpol issued arrest warrants for her and her husband. She has consistently denied the charges, decrying them as politically motivated. A significant portion of the public disagree, seeing her as one of the most corrupt figures in the country's history - but perhaps also one of its most talented politicians.

Though she may be now "fuming" over Musharraf's parliamentary ballot victory, she will bounce back and, according to Amir, will in the end get what she wants, suggesting that "hell hath no fury" like hers.

Then there is another key opposition leader, Sharif Nawaz, also a former prime minister exiled from the country. He seems to enjoy far greater public support, but has clearly been sidelined. His past mistakes - including an attempt to implement Sharia law - put his leadership skills into question. He was, at any rate, prevented from presenting himself as a candidate for the presidency, thanks to Musharraf's last-minute maneuverings.

Finally, we ask, who is Justice Wajihuddin Ahmad, who seems to have garnered so much public attention of late? Wajihuddin, whose two votes in the presidential ballot were not insignificant, has won the public's favor for his outspoken criticism of the Musharraf regime.

Justice Wajihuddin has accused Musharraf of supporting local Taliban in a clever maneuver intended to convince the west, particularly the US, that Pakistani society is under threat from radical Islamists whom only a military dictator such as himself can rebuff. He has also harshly criticized the head of the Election Commission for being blatantly pro-Musharraf. The retired justice lamented the fact that none of the presidential candidates were allowed to present their programs to parliament ahead of the vote.

"Everyone knows Wajihuddin will not be president," writes Amir. "Then why are people rooting for him? Why is he receiving so many plaudits? Are the people of Pakistan finally coming to realize that true respect comes from integrity not authority?"

The US is backing Musharraf, and particularly a Musharraf-Bhutto power-sharing deal, believing both can be molded to Washington's whims. In Bhutto especially they see a powerful figure who can play democrat while remaining an invaluable pawn in the war on terror, which many believe is in large part being played out in Pakistan's tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Bhutto has been courting Washington with as much vigor as she has been negotiating for her own amnesty and Washington will surely make her pay a high price.

The reinstitution of democracy seems doomed to take a back stage to the war on terror in US priorities, though such maneuvering tends to fuel terrorism. But short-term thinking has always been the mark of those leading the struggle in the US.

Perhaps Amir's take reflects the wider public's perspective when he says points to the much worse situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, writing that "few hells are worse than those paved with American good intentions. The Yanks mean well by us too. God help us."

While Musharraf remains weakened politically , militarily he is bogged down in what may be a conflict partially of his own creation. Fighting is raging in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. The latest reports on Tuesday said that as many as 195 people had been killed, 150 insurgents and 45 soldiers. Four civilians were also reported killed, though the government had yet to confirm their deaths at the time of publication.

This unrest increases the pressure on Musharraf ahead of Sunday's Supreme Court decision, the outcome of which is anyone's guess. The Supreme Court seems to have waxed and waned in its defiance of Musharraf in recent weeks.

So, the situation is indeed cause for great concern, but all is not lost, and this is perhaps a litmus test for the people of Pakistan.

ISA is a nonprofit, independent consultancy that specializes in providing analysis of developing issues in international relations to NGOs. Republished with permission.

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