ISLAMABAD — Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, is eager to lament the breakdown of past Pakistani governments in justifying his own assumption of wide-ranging political authority ahead of elections in October.
The outcome of those elections will be important for the stability of Pakistan, a country whose possession of nuclear weapons continues to arouse international security concerns amid the dangerous military standoff with neighboring India.
Pakistan’s decision to join the U.S.-led war on terror following the Sept. 11 attacks has prompted fresh international interest in its future outlook. Many Pakistan-watchers are eager to know whether the country is about to enter a periodic crisis of the type it has endured for years.
The answer to that depends on the extent to which Musharraf succeeds in laying the foundations of a new, stable order that begins to improve Pakistan’s political and economic outlook as central features of its ability to meet future security challenges.
However, Musharraf’s plan for democratizing Pakistan remains locked in uncertainty, dogged by fears among politicians that he could emerge as a strong ruler whose authority would face little resistance, while a newly elected government would remain at his mercy. Constitutional amendments that Musharraf plans to introduce ahead of the elections may empower him to sack the next elected government and the prime minister. The entrenchment of an all-powerful military ruler, no matter how “civilianized,” could only add to the uncertainty.
More than 55 years after Pakistan was created, the country lives with the misfortune of having been ruled by the military for almost half of its existence. It has entered the 21st century as one of the very few countries in the world governed by a military ruler — hardly a matter of pride. The success of Musharraf’s efforts will depend on his understanding Pakistan’s history and the role of the military in periodically taking charge of the country. Three important factors are likely to influence his decisions.
First, Pakistan’s politics has suffered at the hands of discredited politicians as well as past military rulers. The repeated manipulation of political parties under military regimes has ultimately meant that the parties have often been guided by the personality of a single leader rather than by the principles of a democratic platform. A political revival must be driven not only by the challenge of merely returning to civilian rule but, more importantly, by an attempt to create a democratic structure within political parties and institutions. There are no easy solutions to the failure of political parties to have evolved naturally thus far. Any temptation, though, on the part of Pakistan’s ruling regime to eventually back or support one political faction or another is bound to backfire, as the elections would lose all credibility.
Second, Musharraf’s own position as Pakistan’s president was tainted by the referendum in March to secure his term in office. The referendum was controversial as he was the only candidate; challengers were barred from the competition. Pakistan’s political parties were quick to denounce it as a rigged affair. Musharraf, therefore, is likely to remain caught in the dilemma of having only partial moral authority at best for democratizing Pakistan, as long as his own credentials remain in question.
Finally, the success of his plan to make a new political beginning must be about reforming Pakistan in more ways than the electoral process. Many of Pakistan’s institutions remain in disarray following years of periodic political uncertainty, increasing corruption and widespread inefficiency. Part of the malaise surrounding Pakistan’s key institutions, from Parliament down to municipal institutions, stems from the failure to democratize in such a way that popular representation is assured. For too long, Pakistan’s military-led governments, together with its all-too-powerful bureaucracy, has laid down successive national agendas that were said to reflect perfectly the people’s aspirations. While quick fixes have helped the country manage many complicated challenges in the short run, the outlook for the medium to long term has remained weak.
In the long run, Pakistan’s future lies in modernizing as a nation state by creating a representative democracy where political and economic progress is assured. Negative impressions have shaped Pakistan’s international image, including the perceived government links to firebrand Islamic clerics who lead militant groups that are fundamentally at odds with the Western world.
Pakistan may not be able to isolate itself from the passions shared by many Muslims across the world who are angry over continued Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory. Still, demonstrating that its popular frustrations are not contributing to the spread of global terror is in its best interests. This can best be assured if Pakistan’s political progress runs in tandem with the development of a more stable economy.
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