Sabre-rattling among some sections of the media and the Army notwithstanding, is political opposition in Pakistan finally being tempered by the realisation that the only alternative to the current democratically elected dispensation is military rule?
There is surely no shortage of issues to oppose the elected government on: skyrocketing food inflation; law and order breakdown; power shortages; its refusal to restore the judges by executive order; rising sectarian violence and militancy; American military incursions into Pakistani territory… the list can go on.
On the other hand, there lurks the danger of a 1977-like situation when all those opposed to Z.A. Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — right, left and centre — came together in the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). Many of their complaints were entirely justifiable. There were good reasons to suspect that Bhutto was taking the country towards autocracy (Nawaz Sharif made similar moves in his second term). Many PNA activists, although they were clearly for democracy, allowed their dislike of the PPP and Bhutto to cloud their judgment, creating conditions for a military takeover. Their argument that Bhutto was equally or even more responsible for the situation bears weight, but after General Zia overthrew and hanged him, many of the same PNA activists had to join hands with the PPP in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) to oppose Zia. But by then the damage had been done.
In 1999, too, there were many grounds for complaint against Nawaz Sharif. There was great relief, particularly among liberals and left-wingers who initially applauded General Musharraf’s military takeover (with the honourable exception of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan). For the next eight years, until Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhry in March 2007, with the political leadership having been pushed abroad there was little opposition to his diktat.
The PNA movement termed Bhutto a threat to democracy (just as Benazir Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s opponents did). But, ultimately, the greater threat was Army intervention. There is now a consensus that this was a historic mistake that is best not repeated. Those who criticise the Asif Zardari presidency as a threat to democracy might consider again what the real threat actually is. Many do now seem to realise that the real issue is not who the President is but the need to keep the Army out of the political arena.
Pakistani politicians are today exhibiting a rare maturity in their apparent appreciation of the democratic process. As long as the PPP, the President and the Prime Minister stay together, the only threat to Parliament can come from outside it. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the Army has taken a neutral political position and appears reluctant to step in. Keeping it out of politics is one of the basics of the Charter of Democracy signed by the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in May 2006 in London, although critics say the Charter is now meaningless.
The PPP, traditionally anti-establishment, finds itself in the unenviable position of protecting the system it has long been pitted against, allowing others to steal the populist thunder. But that is perhaps the need of the hour: realpolitik, ensuring that power stays in political hands.
There are other signs of political maturity. The ruling party’s refusal to restore the judges by executive order prompted its coalition partner the PML-N to withdraw from the government, something that many say should have happened long before it did. The withdrawal happened in a civilised manner. The government stayed in place, the PPP forging alliances with other former political rivals, however unpalatable they may have been. To the credit of all concerned, this change, too, is taking place peacefully, with everyone stressing the importance of taking the democratic process forward.
Most deposed judges have been ‘restored’ after taking the controversial new oath that critics say validates Musharraf’s November 3, 2007 emergency orders and legitimises the Abdul Hameed Dogar-led judiciary. The deposed Chief Justice, Iftikhar Choudhry, along with some other senior judges, has steadfastly stuck to principles, refusing to take this oath. The lawyers’ movement has lost steam but as some analysts note, the non-restoration of the judges does not necessarily mean they have ‘lost.’ The movement, mobilised by lawyers, students and civil society since March 9, 2007, can take credit in large part for catalysing the subsequent political transition. Credit also goes to the political parties, particularly Benazir Bhutto, although detractors claim otherwise. In any case, once elections had taken place and a new government had been formed, it was time to hand over the torch to the political parties.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, who was active in the movement, reminded the people recently that it was to restore the democratic process that they took to the streets against a military dictatorship. Not liking the outcome only underlines the need to further engage with and deepen the democratic process. “There is no short-cut. If we try too hard to find one, we might be back to another military dictatorship.” (‘The Perils of Democracy’, TNS Political Economy, September 7, 2008).
‘Religious militancy’ on the western borders and within the Pakistani heartland poses a major threat to democracy. The American military incursions into Pakistani territory on September 3 underlined not just American highhandedness and shortsightedness, but also Pakistan’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the militant threat. Pakistan has lodged a strong protest, its Army at the ready to retaliate if the raids do not end. Fair enough. But Pakistan must simultaneously step up its own efforts on this front. In any case, realistically speaking it is in no position to militarily combat the U.S. There is also the other small matter of the Army’s dependence on U.S. military aid.
The reality that this is not ‘America’s war’ but Pakistan’s, sinks in with the realisation that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban pose a threat not just to the U.S. and Afghanistan but also to Pakistan as a nation, and to any democratic system. In some areas there is a sectarian bloodbath. Thousands have had to flee their homes. This issue has to be tackled now, for our own sake, and without ambiguity. There should be no more Lal Masjids. If Pakistan cannot, or would not, tackle the matter effectively, others will surely step in. Obviously military action alone is not the answer: there must be a political roadmap. That is why it is imperative that a political government is in place.
The outcome of the February elections and the widespread support for the democratic process, visible even in the normally bickering political factions, reflect hopes that now finally the Army will be pushed back, the intelligence agencies reined in, and peace established with India and Afghanistan, the eastern and western neighbours. Despite all the risks involved, it is a good time to try for these goals because for once Pakistan’s aims are aligned with those of the U.S. The U.S. is doing this in its own interests, of course, but Pakistan stands to benefit, too.
It is imperative that Pakistan’s political leadership employ the political skill and courage (not bravado) that it needs to build public opinion and steer the country out of the imbroglio it is currently in.