October 11 2007
THE sound you don’t hear as you read this is the sound of one hand clapping. And that hand belongs to those parties supporting Musharraf’s re-election, and those benefiting financially from his presidency.
The other hand, stuck firmly in a pocket, belongs to the opposition parties, and much of civil society. By the time you read this, Musharraf’s re-election will be a certainty, barring a major legal or geological earthquake. While Musharraf will be the winner in this one-horse race, his victory will be challenged in the courts, the streets and the media for the rest of his term.
A fortnight ago, televised images from two Asian cities shocked the world. From Yangon came the scenes of monks in saffron being beaten up by soldiers. And the sight of black-coated lawyers being the targets of rocks, batons and tear gas shells in Islamabad disgusted Pakistanis and foreigners alike.
It is hardly a coincidence that both these backward countries are ruled by generals. Indeed, until the recent coups in Thailand and Bangladesh, Pakistan and Burma were the only two countries run by their armies. Needless to say, Pakistan is near the bottom of tables designed to measure human development and happiness. The recent Transparency International index to measure corruption places us at 138th in the list of clean states.
If Musharraf is the winner, who are the losers? Ultimately, it is the people of Pakistan who will bear the brunt of the ongoing legal and political shenanigans to keep the general in power. And apart from Musharraf and his cronies, it is the Taleban, Al Qaeda and their supporters in Pakistan who are the winners.
For much of this year, the government has been paralysed into inaction as Musharraf’s ambitions have become the focus of the whole country. Since 12 March when the president and his henchmen tried to sack the chief justice, everybody has been glued to their TVs, following the gripping drama that is still unfolding.
Meanwhile, extremists have tightened their grip over the tribal areas, and are now extending their operations into settled districts. They have been blowing up girls’ schools, killing schoolteachers, and forcing shopkeepers not to sell anything un-Islamic. And their definition of what is ‘un-Islamic’ is very wide indeed.
But their attacks have been largely ignored as the nation and the government remain fixated on political and legal matters. Even the capture of hundreds of soldiers, and their continued captivity by the extremists, has been relegated to page 5.
The army junta, totally focused on making sure their boss remains in the presidency, seems unconcerned that so many of its troops have laid down their weapons without firing a shot. It used to be said of the Pakistan army that while it could not win wars against external foes, it was very good at defeating its own citizens. Now even this seems beyond its capabilities.
However, these recent setbacks in FATA should not detract from the courage of the Pakistani soldier. He has been badly let down by a leadership that has become heavily involved in politics and in business enterprises. If professionalism in the army has declined, it is largely because no top-level management can engage successfully in three different fields simultaneously.
Lately, there has been much talk of ‘national reconciliation’. An ordinance has even been named after this alien concept. But if you listen to the background chatter emanating from the ruling circle, you realise that they are only interested in hanging on to power. Reconciliation is very low on their list of priorities.
The relationship between Musharraf and his political allies is a symbiotic one: they will elect him, and he in turn will make sure they get elected in the general elections. And if it takes a little judicious rigging – as it did in 2002 – so be it. Pakistani politics is not for the squeamish and the faint of heart.
Thus, while Musharraf and his cohorts have been trying to convince anybody who will listen that his candidature is constitutional, as is the right of this lame-duck parliament to elect him again, nobody is buying this self-serving fiction.
Even outsiders unfamiliar with our much-abused constitution can see that it is a travesty for a serving general to run for president, even in a banana republic like ours. And for a parliament on the verge of dissolution to elect a president for the next five years is to commit daylight robbery.
So how will all this skulduggery end? In the short-term, in a Pyrrhic victory for Musharraf and his allies. But their remaining time in office will be plagued with constant political bickering as Musharraf’s authority is constantly challenged. And now, he won’t have the shield of his uniform to protect him. An increasingly disenchanted army might like to cut its losses and disentangle itself from the mess their current chief has created.
Although Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf have signed their long-expected deal, a power-sharing arrangement will be a rocky affair. Imagine the PPP, PML-Q and the MQM in a coalition. True, their infighting will give the president much leverage, but the business of running a government will be a very distant second priority to hanging on in power. We can certainly forget about fighting the extremist threat. Or, indeed, about solving the many other pressing problems the country faces.
And all this just so one man can hang on to power. The entire system is being subjected to intolerable strains for Musharraf’s re-election. The seeds being sown now will yield a bitter harvest. The journalists and lawyers who were thrashed and arrested by the state on September 29 in the country’s capital are unlikely to forgive and forget. And neither, for that matter, are we.
Politicians have a certain ‘tipping point’ when they lose their moral authority to rule. Future historians might pinpoint September 29 as the date for Musharraf’s fall from grace. Although he has been heavily criticised over the years, his real decline began on March 12, when he tried to sack the chief justice of the supreme court. But this slide reached its nadir when plain-clothed thugs went berserk on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue last week. Things can only get worse...
Irfan Husain is a Pakistani commentator