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Musharraf's re-election

BY NASIM ZEHRA / 27 January 2007

FINALLY the answer to the million dollar question has come. On January 18, the Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani announced the Cabinet’s decision that General Parvez Musharraf will be re-elected President by the current assemblies.

Durrani said Musharraf’s present term would end almost a week before the completion of the five-year term of the sitting assemblies on November 16, 2007. That makes it imperative for the assemblies to elect him. He said the president should be elected between September and October 2007. However, members of the opposition maintain that the president’s tenure ends in late 2008 and not early November 2007. The answer has been retracted. Yet the number of times this has happened perhaps implies that more than trial ballooning is at work.

The establishment is clear that constitutionally such a step is not questionable. The constitution does not preclude the existing electoral college from casting votes a second time in a presidential election. There can be multiple scenarios in which the electoral college can do so — including the death of a president. And the establishment will opt for such an option to ensure general Musharraf’s continuation as president. Also, the establishment’s calculation is that the political opposition is in disarray and cannot prevent General Musharraf’s re-election by the current assemblis; that it will not resign and that the international community will favour Musharraf’s staying on because of his role in confronting terrorism abroad and extremism at home.

The opposition, for its part, is opposing the re-election and threatening agitation including mass resignations from all assemblies. A divided opposition again appears to be closing ranks. But until now their threats have not translated into unified action. At the London opposition parties meeting convened next month by Nawaz Sharif, the issue of the president’s re-election will top the agenda.

The question of Musharraf’s re-election has the potential to become the ‘missing factor’ in the opposition’s many attempts to unify, and hence also the unifying factor. However, the reverse side of the emergence of such unifying elements is that a lot of ‘mixing of drinks’ takes place in Pakistan’s political scene. Those who would cross swords on key social, political, ideological and foreign policy issues will stand together to criticise these moves.

With such growing opposition, should Musharraf stay or go? Has be become that unpopular? As a military ruler, is he not blocking the advance of a democratic order? The truth is that Musharraf does have popular support, as well as opponents. Despite his shortcomings, globally Musharraf has ably steered the country. Internally, too, he has resolutely tried to fight the cancer of sectarianism and manage the economy better. This has earned him some support. Pakistan does need him.

Yet, grave is the inadequacy and the fragility of any individual as a pivot of reform or of governance. Musharraf’s play-it-safe politics, keeping out the national level popular politician means he personally remains the pivot of power — that no rules of the game take root, that the transition never begins. Musharraf draws his staying power from the military base, from the political parties and political individuals, from Washington, from the absence of any major disruptions. So, from individuals, his own institution and the international environment, Musharraf gets support.

The military factor in Pakistan’s power construct has acquired a pivotal role. Its security agencies are involved in domestic political affairs, it has its own commercial endeavours and a popular ethnic party supports it. The structures and interests of the army combine with its alliances, with important state institutions, with significant groups of society and with sections of the political class to enable the military institution to acquire the political authority and the centrality it currently enjoys.

The army’s networking-based ethos and functioning prevents, within Pakistan, the classical civil-military divide countries like Chile, Argentina, Philippines and Indonesia have experienced. Given this, therefore, there is minimal possibility of the emergence of a popular political movement that will roll back the army into its constitutional non-political space. While there are strong emerging strands of criticism of the army’s role in politics, it is the ‘network’ though ‘competitive’ reality and not an ‘embattled mode’ reality that is dominant reality in Pakistan’s civil-military relations. The army by virtue of its strength and Pakistan’s weak political class is the commanding-competitive mode. Hence the return to genuine democracy in Pakistan is not possible without the military’s cooperation, even if tomorrow Musharraf goes only another military general will move in.

But whether the army can remain or not remain the dominant power wielder is a serious issue but not at the core of Pakistan’s crisis of power. Those issues are the symptoms. The core crisis is that in Pakistan state power and political power is not exercised according to rules. The fall-out has been chaos and crisis and insecurity in the arena of power. In this context, the powerful are able to rotate around the corridors of political and state power and then finally become the pivots of power.

Clearly, without a farewell to arms Pakistan’s political arena will be dominated by muscle power at the cost of the ‘soft and solid’ content of power; one which through playing by rules and fair-play projects values of integrity, sincerity and credibility. Constitutional rule and rule of law alone can promote the ‘soft and solid’ political power within a society. It is this power, as opposed to muscle power, that engages and mobilises the human spirit at a collective level. Without it, no society is willing to walk away from the familiar ways of being and of seeing, no matter how destructive they prove to be. If the spirit doesn’t engage, the human ability to abandon old habits is almost negligible.

Here’s the irony. General Musharraf has believed that he can reform Pakistani society and politics without any consistent rules. He has believed in extending his ‘political base’ without playing by set rules; without a credible system in place. The reality that runs parallel to Musharraf’s attempt to reform is the reality of Pakistan’s politics with ‘no rules of the game’, no national leaders, patronage, nepotism widespread and military engaged in controlling the political arena.

General Musharraf may pull through his re-election from the current assemblies. Yet, the current system cannot be invested with political, moral or legal credibility. It faces no immediate risk of being dismantled, but is incapable of graduating into a credible structure which can provide lasting political stability and the healing touch an ideologically and emotionally fractured so badly needs.

Musharraf must begin his second round as president in partnership, not confrontation with popular national political parties. That would signal the beginning of a ‘farewell to arms’ from Pakistan’s political system and the launch of genuine constitutional rule.

Nasim Zehra is a fellow of Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass. and Adjunct professor at SAIS Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC

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