Defending Democracy in Pakistan

It may seem paradoxical to state that now the military in Pakistan are to defend democracy. But that is exactly what is happening. The maxim that ‘war is too important to be left to the generals’ appears to have been redefined in Pakistan to read ‘politics is too important to be left to the politicians.’

The much talked about National Security Council (NSC) bill after receiving the assent from both the houses in Pakistan has been signed by the President, making the Council a legal entity. That the bill was rushed through without any debate in the parliament is hardly of much significance in the context of political dynamics of Pakistan. The bill was destined to be passed in any case.

The formation of NSC means that the military now has the legal mandate to be involved in running the affairs of the country; in anything considered of national significance. They will act as a forum for consultation by the President and the government. The NSC will also, when it deems fit, make necessary ‘recommendations for appropriate actions’ to the President, the government and the parliament.

On the face of it the NSC does not appear to be overtly military dominated. Out of 13 members only 4 (three Services Chiefs and the Joint Chiefs of Staff) wear the uniform. Added to this are the assurances by all supporting the new set up, that the NSC is just a recommendatory body and cannot take actions on its own.

However, to all those who know the political culture of Pakistan better, the writings are quite clear. Not only that the present President happens to be the army chief, but even without a military President the presence of Services Chiefs in any forum, recommendatory or otherwise, is bound to tip the scales in favor of the military. Their recommendations for all practical purposes would tantamount to executive decisions.

Many would argue what is new or surprising about this arrangement? After all the military has always played the lead role in Pakistani politics whether in power or not. The NSC just formalizes this role. In fact many even welcome the new set up. Anything that could ward off the periodical political crisis in the country is considered by them to be a welcome step.

There is just one problem. Even if one were to ignore the unsavory mix of military and politics and its long-term consequences, the trouble is that the new arrangement is hardly sustainable. Pakistan’s political history is quite educative on this score at least. The political effort of all would now follow the familiar pattern of either defending or agitating this issue. Political agitation and uncertainty will continue.

That is how the politics work in Pakistan. There is always some controversy to occupy the political leader’s time and effort. They find it more rewarding to indulge in this exercise rather than the more painstaking task of nation building. The NSC issue will surely follow this route and remain the focal point of all political activity to the exclusion of other important issues.

Since the elections of October 2002 the politics in Pakistan has followed this polemical path. President Musharraf ensured this by liberally amending the constitution and providing the politicians with bait to challenge them. The bait was accepted and has become the political agenda since the resumption of democracy.

President Musharraf had very early given his vision of ‘sustainable democracy’ in Pakistan. He was not looking for a powerful prime minister or parliament. He was also very clear about the active involvement of the army to safeguard democracy.

Through Legal Framework Order (LFO) he substantially reduced the power of the Prime Minster and increased that of the President, including power to dismiss the government. More importantly a controversy was created that has remained in place since than in various forms. This has shielded the government from scrutiny on their performance in resolving the serious issues facing the country.

The LFO controversy not only divided the government and the opposition, but also ensured divisions with in the oppositions. The Mutahidda Majlis –”I- Amal broke ranks with other opposition members and joined the government in getting the LFO passed in the parliament as the Seventeenth Amendment. Once this was done, setting up of the NSC was only matter of time.

So should the politicians in Pakistan be sympathized for this encroachment of military in the civil affairs? It seems hardly warranted. There are many amongst them who are not satisfied even with this attack on the civilian authority. They want the President to retain the post of army chief even after December 31, 2004; a date agreed to by the president himself! Amazingly, they are even contemplating to agitate for this issue!!

So far President Musharraf appears to have prevailed almost totally in the agenda he set for himself. Domestically he has the politicians generally where he wants them to be. Internationally as long as he is in the forefront of war on terror, he can do no wrong. But how does all this translate into progress and well being of the country?

One has to acknowledge that these are not easy times for Pakistan, and President Musharraf has to work under serious constraints. Given such constraints Musharraf has shown reasonable deftness in handling some grim situations especially concerning foreign affairs. He can also be credited for the early resumption of democratic process in the country.

The long-term consequences of President Musharraf’s efforts towards achieving ‘sustainable democracy’, however, have some serious concerns. The situation of political stability in the country is no better than before, the NSC and the Seventeenth Amendments notwithstanding. Political expediencies continue to be given preferences over sustained development of political culture and traditions.

President Musharraf has tended to disregard the fact that no amount of external safeguards can work if the system is not stable internally. Democratic progress and stability grows form within. The present political system in Pakistan has only superficial moorings and that does not augur well for its longevity. In case of serious challenges the country could go back to square one and President Musharraf for all his short-term success may end up at the wrong side of history.