Is it unsafe to become a prime minister in Pakistan? Many aspiring politicians would agree. In the 1950s, Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was killed by an assassin. In the 1970s, populist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged following his conviction on the controversial charge of ordering the assassination of a political foe.
Since the restoration of democracy in 1988, four elected governments have been prematurely removed before completing their terms of office, each time in the wake of serious allegations of corruption against the prime minister. Now, Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister removed in the October 1999 coup by military chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has been sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty of hijacking and terrorism.
To say Pakistan is a difficult country to govern is an understatement. Pakistan’s history of being a pawn in the superpower rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States has had a bearing on the country’s political fabric. The fact that the Western alliance was always willing to embrace any regime in Islamabad as long as it served its strategic interests meant that military takeovers in Pakistan quickly became acceptable in the West.
Pakistan’s last military ruler, Gen. Zia Ul Haq, one of the worst perpetrators of human-rights abuses in the country’s history, was able to stay in power for 11 years (1977-1988) mainly due to Western economic assistance and political recognition.
Musharraf has seized control at a time when Pakistan’s outlook and realities are different from those faced by previous military regimes. He does not have the comfort of Western support because Pakistan’s importance as a player in promoting Western strategic objectives is less significant than it was during the Cold War.
On top of that, Musharraf has to contend with a barrage of U.S. concerns on issues such as international terrorism and has been pressured to give assurances that Pakistan will not transfer nuclear technology to other states as well as to establish a timetable for Pakistan’s return to democracy.
Musharraf now faces an array of difficult challenges. While he has gained respect for his willingness to tackle Pakistan’s many problems, the jury is still out on whether he will succeed.
Many long-term observers of Pakistan concede that establishing an ideal democracy there is a tall order because stable democracies emerge from evolutionary processes rather than the result of quickly manufactured political orders.
There are at least two factors that weigh in favor of democracy returning to Pakistan.
First, outside pressure for a return to democracy is bound to eventually force Musharraf to make concessions. One of the general’s latest initiatives is the establishment of a human-rights policy that will benefit Pakistan’s most oppressed individuals. Yet such a step will not silence the many critics who question the legitimacy of his regime.
At best, the general can establish basic rules to ensure cleaner civilian politics in the future, such as anticorruption measures and guidelines on what constitute conflicts of interest. Once such basics are put in place, the time will come to transfer power to a democratically elected civilian government.
Second, any regime in power for any significant amount of time will begin to run up against increasing criticism of its inability to make a difference. More than six months after Musharraf’s coup, the initial euphoria over the military takeover, which replaced an unpopular government, has ended. In time, the military may realize that, given the complexities of ruling Pakistan, it may be in its own best interest to allow a transition to civilian rule rather than remain in charge of an untenable situation.
Pakistan is thus likely to see the return to rule by democratically elected prime ministers in the future but there’s no assurance that the legacy of politicians running into eventual disgrace will end any time soon.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.