Pakistan: Testing times ahead for the General President

LIKE a large stone thrown into a stagnant pond, Asif Zardari’s release continues to cause ripples in the water. As hundreds of supporters and well-wishers throng around Bilawal House, and journalists join the queue to interview him, the official media maintains a studied silence.

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 9 Dec 2004, 11:15 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:56 AM

The ill-considered and mean-spirited decision to keep him in custody for all these years may yet return to haunt the establishment as Zardari shows how much he has grown in stature and gravitas.

Although the vast majority welcomed his release, there is a small but vocal section that howled with rage when Zardari was set free. These people have a visceral hatred for the PPP and the Bhuttos, and see them as the source of every ill in the country. For them, it was not enough that Zardari became the longest-serving political prisoner in Pakistan: in their eyes, the judgments of several courts, including the Supreme Court, mean nothing. Only their own biased ruling counts. Setting themselves up as judge, jury and prosecutor, they have pronounced Zardari guilty as charged, and petty details like a lack of evidence are irrelevant.

These are the very people who tacitly support the army each time it stages a coup, and bemoan the process through which illiterate voters elect people like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. For them, the low turnout in the last couple of elections somehow robs the results of their legitimacy, and hence makes military interventions acceptable. Needless to say, these arm-chair democrats never vote, sneering at the whole exercise as futile.

The other matter currently roiling political waters is the issue of Musharraf’s uniform. Now signed into law by the acting president, the controversial bill unites a fractured opposition and promises trouble for the government. The whole tortured exercise is a reminder of the fragility of the system Musharraf and his henchmen have cobbled together. The fact that despite having a hand-picked prime minister, a King’s Party, and carefully vetted key generals in place, Musharraf still needs the security of his army job is a stark reminder of the inherent instability of the edifice so carefully constructed over the last five years.

In his most recent column, M J Akbar, the chief editor of the Indian daily Asian Age, writes: “The key difference between a dictatorship and a democracy is that in the former the government is stable but the system is unstable. In the latter, governments are unstable, and deservedly so, but the system has the strength to proceed with calm and continuity.”

The truth of this observation is proved by the unseemly scramble to allow Musharraf to wear two hats, something unheard of in any democratic dispensation. Indeed, by reneging on his pledge to shed his uniform by the end of this year, Musharraf has exposed the present charade for what it really is: a sham to placate the internal and external demands for elections and democracy.

One of the things Zardari has dwelt upon in a couple of TV interviews is the need to have fresh elections next year. While this demand has been met by the usual condemnation by government hacks, it does call for a certain amount of sober consideration. Apart from the routine accusations of rigging in the last election, it is an unfortunate fact that the present assemblies have been tainted by association with an army regime. Many members have been party to unsavoury deals, and the horse-trading rampant in the early days of these assemblies has rendered their credibility and integrity highly suspect.

Although our assemblies have not been famous for their rectitude in the past, it only seems logical to seek a fresh start. Elections could also give Musharraf an exit strategy: as a compromise, he could continue as army chief until the polls, provided they are held next year, and then contest the election for the presidency as a civilian if he chooses to. Or he could simply opt to retire from both offices.

There comes a point in every life and career where a person needs to examine his achievements and failures, and decide when to call it a day. For most people, this decision is made for them in the shape of a mandatory retirement age. But for those who consider themselves indispensable, let me assure them that organisations and countries are bigger than them, and that life will go on whether they are on the scene or not.

Musharraf can look back on a number of successes. In my book, he deserves credit for saving the country from Nawaz Sharif’s plans to drag us back into the medieval era by imposing the 15th Amendment. Musharraf also made some quick and clever moves in the aftermath of 9/11. Committing the armed forces to the peace process with India is yet another feather in his cap. However, he has failed miserably in reining in extremists. His other major failure has been the devolution plan which has been an unmitigated disaster.

Whatever his record, from now on, it’s going to be a slippery slope for Musharraf. The law of diminishing returns has set in, and no matter what he does, he will be plagued by demands to announce his retirement from the army. Rather than be hounded out of office, Musharraf would do well to consider making a graceful exit while he still commands some political capital. There has been much talk of a deal through which Zardari was released. While I have no way of verifying it, I somehow doubt that he was freed as part of a secret understanding. After all, deals had been on offer before, so why should he spend eight years in jail before accepting one? But now that he is free, there would be no harm in the PPP and the rest of the opposition offering Musharraf indemnity for his actions in return for a commitment to hold free and fair elections next year, and retirement from both his current jobs.

There has been too much bitterness and acrimony in the name of so-called accountability, and it is high time this destructive practice is brought to an end. The constitution has provisions to try and punish corrupt politicians and officials without establishing witch-hunts that become the end-all and be-all of the entire system. If the present round of military rule leads to a better understanding among politicians of how they are used and manipulated by the establishment, it will have been worth it. If political parties can arrive at a code of conduct that cleans up politics, Musharraf will have made a contribution to the development of democracy despite himself.

Irfan Husain is a Pakistani commentator

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