Democracy, Musharraf and the US

Among Pakistanis seeking a breakthrough in our deadlocked political situation, there is a tendency to ‘clutch at straws’ that even remotely suggests the deadlock can be broken. Today despite the government’s achievements in the economic arena, needed re-orientation in foreign policy and the ideological re-orientation of the State, Pakistan’s overall context remains wobbly. These positive elements, which are also still work-in-progress as issues like poverty alleviation and abysmally low social sector indicators still require very focused effort, however do make for the positive ‘content.’

But unfortunately the overall context, the political system still remains highly problematic. It is neither credible nor stable. And also shows no indication of ending the political polarization that is a must to take forward successfully the national agenda of rolling back political extremism. Pakistan’s problem of political extremism, whether ethnic or religious, has been created because of both the absence of a genuine democratic set-up plus the injection of extremism by the Establishment in the Pakistani polity as part of the international supported Afghan jihad.

While one of the condition that promoted political extremism is no longer being sustained by the Establishment, the condition of absence of a credible democratic political set-up is being sustained. And Pakistanis, a people who understand the need for democracy , who have sacrificed for democracy against military dictators , understand the need for genuine democracy. While political polarization and return of the army to the barracks is a must the current reality of Pakistan general Musharraf has to become the transition man. The responsibility of holding a fair and free elections rests on his shoulders alone. That is now the critical question. How fair will the elections be? Clearly fair elections cannot e held without some settlement between general Musharraf and the Opposition parties.

Hence hopes of some ‘breakthrough’ are raised whether there is news of dialogue between the government and the Opposition leaders, statements from Opposition politicians announcing a united election platform, or the boycotting of elections by them calling or a Nawaz-Benazir-Altaf Hussain meeting in London. But indeed what injects the most ‘excitement’ in the Pakistani political context which includes sections of the government, the politicians, the media community and by extension the public are any words from US officials.

For multiple reasons the Washington factor in the contours of Pakistani politics is not surprising. Six are noteworthy. One at this point Washington is the strongest supporter of General Parvez Musharraf’s government. At regular intervals the Bush administration praises his person and his policies. Hence in the Pakistani context that inadvertently establishes the connection between Musharraf’s political survival and Washington’s support.

Two there is hardly a day that passes without some statement being injected into the Pakistani public discourse which involves Americans and Pakistan’s political situation. It’s either a US official’s, an American researcher’s or a US media comment on Pakistan’s political situation that is reported in the Pakistani press. Such statements are now more frequent as the 2007 elections draw closer.

Three, numerous ‘suggestive’ statements made by senior US officials President George Bush downwards on the health of Pakistani democracy have included the need to have fair and free elections, the need to have more democracy and the need to have the army under civilian rule plus comments on general Musharraf’s uniform. This has been interpreted in Pakistan as some pressure on the government from Washington to take specific steps to hold fair and free elections.

Four, there has been an expectation that ‘fair and free’ elections for Washington may mean bringing in Benazir and Nawaz Sharif on board. According there has been speculation in the public realm that Washington may ‘advise’ general Musharraf to arrive at some pre-election settlement before the elections. Washington has also publicly articulated the need for the government to bring mainstream political parties on board. That is interpreted as advise for reconciliation between the government and the PPP and the PML-N.

Five, in a context in which the Pakistani public generally views general Musharraf’s government as being often responsive to Washington’s ‘advise’ on issues ranging from the conduct of the ‘war on terrorism’ to the human rights issues like the Muktaran Mai case, it believes Washington’s proclivity for partnership with the comparatively liberal Pakistani political forces as opposed to the conservative and religious forces may encourage the Musharraf government to arrive at some arrangement with these parties.

But all these factors denote simplistic thinking. The Washington factor in Pakistani politics is a misread factor. Washington has interests and influence in Pakistan. It will use those to promote its own national interests. In terms of priorities democracy is not a major interest. It’s a concern only and incidental mainly to the promotion of its other policy interests. For now general Musharraf is the man Washington will bet on. Washington’s medium term vision of Pakistan and its engagement with Pakistan is linked to Musharraf in office. All the statements made by US officials, ultimately support general Musharraf’s ‘democracy project.’

Meanwhile in Pakistan there is no more pressing agenda but to end the continuing political polarization. And the first necessary step in that direction must be 2007 elections. It is clear if they are held without some mutually agreed upon CBMs agreed upon by the country’s major political parties the elections will not be considered fair. The government that will follow will not be legitimate, keeping the Pakistani context unstable. The onus of making sure this does not happen is on general Musharraf and his team.