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Democracy Interrupted?

Tuesday 18 March 2008, by S Akbar Zaidi

Pakistan has voted for a democratic future but Pervez Musharraf is
still in the spotlight. Washington is fully capable of converting
the victory of the people into a defeat by forcing a deal between
the new government and the former general. Another factor that will outline the contours of “democratisation” is the tradition in
Pakistani politics of accommodating and compromising with the

So what happened to the great democratic revolution which supposedly overturned retired general president Pervez Musharraf’s cart on February 18? If, as all participants, observers and analysts
correctly believe, the elections of February 18 were an anti-
Musharraf vote, in which the people of Pakistan signalled their
wish to put an end to the dispensation headed by the former general
since 1999 and wanted him gone, why is he still in power? The vote
went against not just the ruling Pakistan Muslim League’s (Quaid-e-
Azam) Shaukat Aziz, who made a very hasty retreat to safer and
more lucrative shores well before the votes were cast, but was a
resounding rejection of much of what Musharraf stood for and
propagated. Interestingly, this rejection did not include the people
rejecting Musharraf’s notion of lifestyle liberalism, also known as
moderate enlightenment. The electorate signalled their wish not
just for a superficial notion of moderate enlightenment, but
importantly voted for a political liberalism as well, in which
basic rights related to some form of participation and
representation and were just as important as were liberal lifestyle
choices. The electorate rejected both fundamental- ism and
authoritarianism and the architecture that each endorsed and supported.

Clearly, this was a particularly important vote and result by any
sense of imagination. Yet, why has the process for democratic
transition and/or transformation stalled? Is this merely because the
elected mandate is split between the two largest parties and the
idea of coalition politics is alien to Pakistan’s politics, or is
there something far more sinister, substantive and powerful at
work? Or, as those who are taking a wait-and-see approach say, this
is merely how the new politics will be done? Perhaps the answer to
this and related questions lies in two separate spheres, both
overlapping. On the one hand, the domestic politics of compromise
and collaboration may continue to haunt the apparent victors of the
February 18 elections for some time to come resulting in the process
of demcratisation slowing down. And on the other, Musharraf’s
longevity may be very closely linked to support from the
administration in Washington. Either way, Pakistan’s democratic
transition is being curtailed and interrupted.

Endorsing the Military

The politics of Pakistan’s political parties has been one largely of
compromise and collaboration with the military, by far the largest
and most prominent and powerful institution and organisation in the
country. In each of the military coups that have taken place in the
past, political actors have either asked the military to intervene
directly in the civilian dispensation or have endorsed the coup that
has taken place once the military has stepped into power. In 1977,
those political parties that were opposed to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s
People’s Party, including many who claimed to have secular roots,
pressed Zia-ul-Haq to intervene and dismiss Bhutto and hold fresh
elections after the polls earlier that year had been actively
rigged. Zia ful illed this request and ended up staying for 11
years. Similarly, Musharraf too was welcomed in by opponents of Nawaz Sharif in 1999, and those who wanted him out were willing to
support a general coming to power. Moreover, even when not directly
in power as in the 1988-99 period, the military was constantly at
hand, being asked by politicians to intervene in the democratic and
political process. The dismissal, twice, of both the democratically
elected prime ministers in this period could not have come about
without sections of the ubiquitous military apparatus being
involved, often at the behest of political actors.

Politics or democracy in Pakistan has seldom been immune to military
intervention and involvement. However, the responsibility for this
intrusion may not simply be that the military prefers to run
Pakistan’s politics because it feels that it knows best, but that
different breeds of politicians find opportunities to compromise
with and depend upon the military to get them into power. Political
parties in Pakistan have been more interested in coming to power
through any means at their disposal, rather than take the democratic
route to power. Musharraf, despite having lost the election in a
manner of speaking remains in power precisely because the former
leader of the People’s Party put him into power. Her heirs are
bound by that arrangement.

When Benazir Bhutto agreed to become Musharraf’s prime minister by
agreeing to do a deal with him last July, she gave up all political
agency and abandoned, in fact sabotaged, a popular movement against the uniformed general in full force throughout 2007. Had Bhutto advised members of her party in Parliament to vote against the re- election of the uniformed president last year, and had she supported the various democratic struggles underway, Pakistan could have been a very different country than it is today. And, perhaps, Benazir Bhutto may also have been alive to savour a real political, and possibly, democratic transition in Pakistan. However, to think that
she would have taken a stand against the tradition of politics in
Pakistan is naive. Access to power and its capture mattered far
more than how one got there.

It is this compromise and collaboration by political actors that has
legitimised and even protected the role of Pakistan’s military in
the political process in Pakistan. Hence, today, when sections of
Pakistan’s political actors and intelligentsia are demanding a
complete end to the continuation of military rule, uniformed or in
civilian guise, apologists for the more traditional form of doing
politics are urging caution, warning us not to squander the moment.
This is perhaps the first time since 1968 that people have been brave
enough and clear enough to vote against the military and a general
in power, and yet the ex- tent of caution being urged at this moment
only plays into the hand of the former general and the
“Establishment”. If political parties have largely been elected on
an anti-Musharraf ticket, why are the victors scared to press on?
Why must they play this accommodating role? What are they waiting
for? Having won probably the fairest and freest elections since
1970, and like 1970, having won a decisive vote against the
military and establishment order, the victors of 2008 have failed to
distinguish between the politics of democracy and the politics of
accommodation and collaboration. And, because of this, they have
failed to take the democratic order further, interrupting its

The American Imposition

The fact that the US has played an overly overt and active role in
ensuring Musharraf’s longevity since 2001 cannot be denied.
Statements since February 18 by the three senior most members of
the state department, Condoleezza Rice, John Negroponte and Richard Boucher have only reaffirmed Pakistan’s changing status from a frontline state to that of a client state, where support for
Musharraf to continue as president has been crucial. For the Bush
administration, the lead role of Pakistan (Musharraf) in their war
against terrorism is far more important than is the verdict given
by the electorate of Pakistan demanding an end to the Musharraf
order, which may have helped the Americans but has also brought the
war back home into the heartland of Pakistan. Probably another
reason why the Pakistani electorate wanted him out.

From the American point of view the desire to see Musharraf
continue in power is quite understandable. He is their man, running
their war. However, the fact that Pakistani political parties and
their leaders have to bow and tow the American line is less
understandable. Both Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif were paid
visits by the US ambassador in Islamabad regarding the American’s
desire to see Musharraf continue. Both Pakistani leaders have been
forced to change their tune following the visits regarding their
desire to get rid of Musharraf. Hence Zardari’s statements that his
party has no problem working with the obvious loser in the 2008
elections. While the American position on Pakistan’s future as a
democracy has always been suspect, one had hoped that the two
outright victors of the electoral process of 2008 would have shown
far greater democratic credentials than they have.

The events, processes and intrigues underway since February 18,
suggest that what has been squandered has been the moment to press forward with Pakistan’s democracy, not to pause and interrupt it. The 2008 elections are the first in almost 40 years where democracy seems to have triumphed over the ubiquitous, omni- present, military state and its establishment. The fact that Pakistan’s politicians have not understood this is a sad reflection of the state of politics and of
democracy in Pakistan. Further compromise, collaboration and
accommodation with the military and its masters will only delay the
process of democratisation in Pakistan. While some important
transition will certainly take place over the next few days and
weeks, perhaps the moment to push forward with more, not less,
democracy may have been lost.

First published in Economic and Political Weekly in March 2008