Musharraf brings electoral politicking to Pakistan again

Pakistan is again in the grip of election fever as people prepare for polls on October 10. With the leaders of the two main political parties, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League, barred from participation because of corruption charges, the election has become a localized affair. Nobody should lament the exclusion of the two former prime ministers, yet contestants are no longer appealing to the electorate on the basis of policies but on what favours they can do for their supporters. Real power resides with the president, general Pervez Musharraf; the new parliament is only supposed to do his bidding. This may explain the lack of interest: Pakistanis have gone through these motions many times, and politicians have ever disappointed them by failing to deliver.

There is something even more bizarre in this election, however, than in previous exercises in futility: the military regime’s attempts to create a “king’s party” appear to be in great difficulty. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, is having a hard time securing support for its favourite candidates. There is no shortage of sycophants among Pakistan’s political elite; in fact, it is the only growth industry. But every other sector of the country has gone downhill: economic growth is at a dismal 3.2 percent. All neighbouring countries (except Afghanistan) have regularly registered 6 to 8 percent growth rates. Unemployment is at an all-time high; prices have shot up while people’s incomes have declined. The number of people living below the poverty line has increased to 56 million, or 40 percent of the population; Musharraf’s contribution is that this figure has increased by 15 million during his three-year rule, despite much drum-beating about Pakistan’s foreign-exchange reserves hitting the US$5 billion mark.

If health and education have not improved under Musharraf, there may be reason to excuse him: no regime in the past has done any better; but what about law and order? If a military regime cannot bring a sense of security to the people, something has really gone wrong. There is also deep polarization between secular and Islamic groups; before September 11, the latter were the regime’s main allies in such places as Afghanistan and Kashmir. Under American pressure, Musharraf had to do a quick U-turn, alienating at a stroke the Islamic parties as well as abandoning long-established foreign policy goals.

Aware that Pakistan’s real masters are in Washington, Musharraf embraced them eagerly when US secretary of state Colin Powell phoned him on the evening of September 11 last year. A day later, when Musharraf announced that he had abandoned a 25-year-old policy in Afghanistan and decided to join America’s war, he tried to justify this volte face by declaring that he had “saved” the country’s nuclear assets and improved the chances of a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. A year later such wishful thinking lies totally exposed. Its nuclear prowess was supposed to make Pakistan impregnable, yet it has become more vulnerable because of Musharraf’s weakness; as for Kashmir, the army has come down hard on groups struggling to support their oppressed brothers and sisters in Kashmir. Coming to the help of the oppressed (a Qur’anic command, 4:75) has become a crime in the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” because of its rulers’ desire to appease America. And India has playing the terrorism card against the Kashmiri mujahideen.

On the external front Musharraf has submitted completely to the US, but on the domestic front he has been on a political rampage. First he held a fraudulent referendum on April 30, claiming a turnout of 47 percent when, according to almost all observers, the true figure was really less than 10 percent. Even this was only achieved by allowing people to vote as many times and at as many polling stations as they pleased, without any electoral rolls or voters even identifying themselves formally. Journalists had a field day: they voted in numerous polling stations and then published their findings with enormous headlines in the next day’s papers. Even Pakistan’s foreign missions were ordered to provide votes for the only candidate. Musharraf was regarded as an illegitimate ruler before April 30, and as a fraud afterwards.

Not content with such political acrobatics, Musharraf outdid himself and his predecessors by announcing a raft of constitutional amendments (29 in all) on August 21, in order to assume supreme powers and neutralise the not-yet-elected parliament. Pakistan’s constitution has been assaulted by every charlatan and now altered to suit Musharraf’s needs. He has got away with all this so far, because he knows that the real rulers of Pakistan reside in Washington. He can also count on the fickleness of the political elite, who are willing to sell themselves to almost anyone, provided that their privileges are safeguarded.

Pakistan’s military establishment has always felt a healthy contempt for politicians. Interestingly, one of the rules imposed on candidates for participation in the electoral process is that they hold at least one college degree, even a Pakistani degree, which is equivalent to A-levels in Britain. What is astonishing is that this rule has been imposed by those who themselves have no qualifications from any established institution. It is true that, after graduating from the military academy, cadets are “awarded” a degree, but this cannot count as the genuine article.

Setting these issues aside, what it is important that we realize is that the military has always been supreme in Pakistan, regardless of whether or not the country was under direct military rule. Since the military coup by general Ayub Khan (1958), who later appointed himself Field Marshal, all civilian politicians have emerged from the bowels of successive military regimes: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Muhammad Khan Junejo, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Benazir’s military links may raise some eyebrows: it was general Mirza Aslam Beg who allowed her to become the prime minister after general Zia ul-Haque’s plane crash in August 1988, and it was he who engineered her removal from power two years later. Her father, Zulfiqar Bhutto, was a favourite of Ayub Khan’s until Ayub was finished politically by the ill-fated campaign in Kashmir that led to war with India in September 1965. Bhutto, who had conspired to bring about the Kashmir fiasco, then abandoned Ayub and put on the garb of a democrat.

The military has held sway in Pakistani politics because it is the largest and best-organized political party in Pakistan, although it wears uniform. The army has also maintained close relations with the US, the godfather of Pakistani politics and real dispenser of political largesse. This has become even more apparent now that America is the “sole superpower” and has begun to act so aggressively since last September. Successive American governments have favoured military dictatorships over civilian governments, despite Bush’s claim that people hate America because “we stand for freedom and justice.” America’s allies, whether in Asia, the Middle East or South America, are almost all military dictators. Civilian governments are problematic because they have to respond to the demands of their public: this is a weakness that military strongmen do not suffer from.

Musharraf is a typical example. When he first seized power, or it was handed to him by two of his senior confidants, generals Mahmoud and Aziz, he was welcomed by Pakistan’s secular elite. Musharraf drank, partied, and was not a ‘fundamentalist’. The Islamic groups and ordinary people were appalled by his pronouncements about admiring Mustafa Kemal of Turkey, and by his habit of carrying dogs in his lap. His about-turn on Afghanistan and Kashmir alienated the people even further. Now Musharraf has seemingly managed the impossible: he has alienated even the secular groups, apparently feeling that, having secured America’s blessing, he does not need them. Among his newly-acquired opponents are lawyers’ organizations, students, trade unionists, human-rights groups and women’s organizations. Even for a military dictator this is quite a feat.

Musharraf appears to believe that making himself indispensable to the Americans is sufficient to secure him in power, regardless of how deeply he angers and alienates his own countrymen. As his army and paramilitary forces do the American’s bidding in hunting down ordinary Pakistanis and others suspectedof being al-Qa’ida supporters, they are simultaneously creating a bank of opposition to Musharraf himself. This is not a policy that will serve him well.

Whether there are elections on October 10 or not, Musharraf is pursuing a dangerous policy whose consequences will be serious not only for him personally but also for his country.