Following months of political turmoil and a precipitous decline in public support for President Musharraf, the Supreme Court provided the beleaguered leader a lifeline by dismissing several cases challenging his eligibility to seek re-election to another five-year presidential term. The court's decision provides a temporary boost to Musharraf, but last weekend's protests in Islamabad demonstrate that the political situation remains unsettled and will continue to convulse in unpredictable ways in the coming weeks.
The latest Supreme Court ruling was not entirely unexpected, despite the court's newly found independence. The high court has increasingly asserted its authority and sought to check the executive on several occasions. However, a decision in early September rejecting a plea to stop Musharraf from contesting the presidential election signaled that the high court would act with restraint in cases relating to the scheduled election and legislation already passed by the parliament. While announcing the decision on the early September case, Chief Justice Chaudhry stated that "elections were at hand" and that "no one should try to derail the system."
Removing Uniform Key to Political Transition
Although the Supreme Court's decision provides a brief reprieve to Musharraf, he will be under intense domestic and international pressure to shed his military uniform, if, as expected, he wins the presidential election. Opposition resignations from the national and provincial assemblies this week also will undermine the credibility of the election results. In order to placate the opposition and lay a foundation for a credible general election early next year, Musharraf will need to resign from the Chief of Army position. Washington has been pressing Musharraf to resign his military post before the end of the year to facilitate the transition to civilian democratic rule.
Implementing emergency rule is no longer a credible option for President Musharraf. The senior military leadership almost certainly realizes that declaring an emergency in the current environment risks rupturing civil-military relations beyond repair. Since Musharraf's lawyer has already told the courts that he will shed his military uniform before taking a new oath of office, Musharraf has little choice but to follow through on the commitment. A second attempt to renege on his pledge, like he did in 2004, would meet with strong international condemnation.
Recent military appointments demonstrate that Musharraf is seeking to ensure continuity in Army policies during the political transition. The series of promotions are critical for maintaining the professionalism and institutional integrity of the Army and reassuring the international community that the military remains committed to the fight against terrorism and protection of the country's nuclear assets. Another pressing question is how the new military leadership will deal with the volatile situation in the Tribal Areas. It is this issue -- more than any other -- that has the potential to divide the military and cause friction with Washington. The Tribal Areas have become a launching pad for global terrorism and a safe haven for Taliban extremists seeking to spread their strict brand of Islam throughout Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.
Need for Credible General Elections
If the October 6th presidential election stays on track and Musharraf resigns from the Army, all eyes will then turn to the 2008 general election. This will mark a historic event in Pakistan that will define the core direction of the country at a time when religious extremists seek to provoke an Islamic revolution. Extremists thrive on fractured polities and are stepping up attacks, especially on the military, to take advantage of the political unrest.Extremists have killed nearly 300 Pakistani civilians and security personnel in just the last two months. The latest attack occurred on Monday when a suicide bomber killed at least 15 people near a police checkpoint in the town of Bannu in NWFP.
As Pakistanis fight for democracy in their country, they should recognize that their greatest battle is against violent extremists who wish to turn Pakistan into a Taliban-like theocratic state. A recent poll taken by the U.S. nongovernmental organization Terror Free Tomorrow shows that an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis do not view the fight against terrorism as benefiting Pakistan nor do they see defeating al Qaeda as a priority for their leaders. On the other hand, Pakistanis view a free press, free elections, and improving the economy as important long-term goals. What they need to accept is that if al Qaeda achieves its goals in Pakistan, there would never be free elections and the economy would lurch backward.
The U.S. realizes a political transition in Pakistan is inevitable. Washington's call for a "smooth democratic transition" derives not from a desire to see Musharraf remain at the helm but rather from genuine concern that extremists will gain the upper hand in the event of a power vacuum caused by an abrupt change in the political landscape.
In recent months Washington has begun to take a stronger stance in promoting democracy by encouraging Musharraf not to declare emergency, calling for the release of detained opposition leaders, and pressing Musharraf on the uniform issue. However, Washington was mistaken in not pursuing democracy in Pakistan more vigorously until this year. It is critical that Washington make up for lost time and demonstrate in unequivocal terms that it supports Pakistan's historic transition to civilian democratic rule.Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center.
First appeared in the Pakistani weekly, The Friday Times