BB-Musharraf Talk: Impact of Selective Engagement

On July 27, in Abu Dhabi the half a decade long, mostly indirect, contacts between General Parvez Musharraf and the Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, climaxed. So far the most public contact, disclaimers notwithstanding, between the two took place. The Musharraf-led Establishment is easing off the pressures on Benazir that had been applied by it and the Nawaz Sharif government. On the corruption cases filed by NAB as the representative of the State of Pakistan three ‘conciliatory’ moves were made; one from the Swiss Courts NAB decided to withdraw from the prosecution, two in the Spanish Courts after first seeking to be party in BB’s cases NAB has recently withdrawn as party and at home , where Pakistani law does not give the State the option to unilaterally drop charges in criminal offence NAB has been instructed to not pursue the cases. The State will let the courts decide.

Other ‘conciliatory moves include the unfreezing of some of Benazir’s bank accounts. There is also a strong possibility of Musharraf ,maybe through an ordinance, knocking down the clause of the 17th Amendment that prevents an individual from becoming Prime Minister for the third time. The likely quid pro quo for general Musharraf will be no active opposition, by casting negative votes or putting up an alternative candidate, to his re-election as uniformed president by the current Assembly. Instead PPP will abstain. The president’s commitment will be to remove his uniform after the national elections due for end 2007. Post election national government with PPP, PML-Q and even MQM and perhaps Benazir as prime minister is also under discussion. Benazir is seeking guarantees for fair and free elections and is also suggesting names for a caretaker set up.

Multiple factors prompted the Abu Dhabi meet-the attempt to finalize an agreement. The July 20 restoration of the Chief Justice has made general Musharraf vulnerable to legal scrutiny and underscored his increasing political fragility. The judgment has demonstrated the power of the lawyers, backed by the public, to take press on successfully for Constitutional rule. And the lawyers’ movement is now calling for the removal of a unformed president. They argue like other political parties that in his presence fair and free elections are not possible.

The pressure from Washington on the government to seek a popular political partner the PPP, for its own stability and to effectively fight the war against terrorism,’ has also been increasing. At home the fast deteriorating security situation in the post lal masjid operation phase means the government needs to opt for partnership with popular politicians. The gathering opposition to a president in uniform and the re-election by the current assembly has created unprecedented political trouble for general Musharraf.

Against this backdrop the opposition reached out for Benazir the politician with popular support and one who enjoys Washington’s confidence. Hence Benazir enjoys maximum leverage from among the political forces with the Establishment. She is effectively leveraging her position with general Musharraf. Her public message is commitment to democracy, army to the barracks, PPP a force of the future, a bulwark against "Islamic extremists." Seeking withdrawal of cases against her, the holding of fair and free elections and the return of political leaders abroad, Benazir’s politics is pragmatic. It combines realism and opportunism promoting self and party interest.

These Musharraf-Benazir negotiations for now seem to prove most beneficial for Benazir. She is standing by her commitment to no uniformed President and that engagement for transition to genuine democracy is necessary. It does diminish the political; fortunes of the PML-Q. Its members, now doubtful of the Establishment’s support in future elections may either turn to the PPP for a ‘safe’ future or turn to PML-N as a genuine Opposition party. As for the Establishment the system that it put together and the previous positions it took vis a vis the politicians as either politically convenient or extremely naïve positions.

All these developments are significant from two perspectives; one the rule of law and two the future of genuine Constitutional democracy in Pakistan. These moves undermine rule of law by making prosecution seem like a tool for political horse-trading. Earlier when in December 2000 when a convicted Nawaz Sharif was allowed to take off for Saudi Arabia by hijacking the legal process the State had then too used prosecution as a political tool. Then the justification was unavoidable pressure by oil-granting friends. Whatever the justification then and now , on both occasions the key tools that are crucial for upholding rule of law , investigation and prosecution have been compromised.

These moves including the reference against the Chief Justice could be viewed as the government faced by a political crisis, turning prosecution institutions as it political tools. In the past too the individuals we were told NAB had been set up for were actually made Ministers of Interior- ones who NAB would report too.

Clearly, the answer to use of accountability as a tool to harass and hound the political opposition by governments is not to completely mutilate the process. Instead, the response must be to let a genuinely independent judiciary examine the charges.

But there is another dimension to all of this Musharraf–”Benazir dialogue and the withdrawal of cases- the political dimension. Given that the country, so deeply and viciously divided and the current system largely bereft of credibility the argument for a healing touch, for credibility seeking moves and for smooth transition moves is a strong one. And if for these objectives the government announced general amnesty for all politicians abroad , for dropping the cases and letting the courts decide their fate , it would be a welcome move. For the government and for the country selective engagement and selective amnesty may backfire politically.

Interestingly, another reason for promoting selective reconciliation is to "defeat extremism and promote moderation’ in the coming elections. The president and his supporters believe the way to defeat the ‘extremists’ is by joining hands with the ‘moderates.’ This is a simplistic understanding of admittedly the principle challenge that Pakistan faces- the deadly challenge posed by violent killer brigades, by the armed militias and by those who spread hatred and intolerance and lawlessness in the name of religion, ethnicity and national interest.

Reducing all this to an extremist versus moderate divide defies fact and logic. For the State to reduce Pakistan’s electorally relevant political parties like the ANP, PML-N, PPP, MQM, JUI etc to a moderate versus extremist divide is analytically and politically flawed. While these parties may hold traditional, literalist or contemporary positions on different issues, it is hard to brand them into the extremist or moderates. However all those forces that undermine the Constitution of Pakistan by undermining the rights of the citizens of Pakistan and violate rule of law must become the principle concern of the State and the target of law enforcement agencies. Business of politics is not the business of those who represent the State. Theirs is principally and exclusively rule of law. Our framework of analysis and prognosis must be home grown. In a global and alliance context where Washington-led ‘war on terror’ seems to become the paramount political reality of our times, for our State to slip into flawed prognosis and subsequently flawed remedial strategies is easy. Yet for our national good and even for global peace such flaws must be avoided. Instead we need genuine democracy and firm enforcement of law.

Meanwhile, while facing a genuinely difficult security and political situation the Establishment must recognize that it must function strictly within the parameters of Constitutional law. Any notion that imposition of martial law or emergency will solve any problems for either the Establishment, the country or the people of Pakistan must be set aside. There is only way forward –” the path of general amnesty for all, a genuinely free and fair elections and the return of the army to the barracks.