August 10, 2007

August 10, 2007 | Commentary on Asia

Pakistan:  Stumbling Towards Democracy

After eight years of military rule, Pakistan is finally moving towards restoring civilian-led democracy. On July 27 - the same day the re-opening of the Red Mosque provoked street clashes and a bombing killed 13 in a nearby market - news broke that President Pervez Musharraf had met with former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Coinciding with the violent and tumultuous events in Islamabad, the reported Musharraf-Bhutto conclave provided a ray of hope that the two leaders were making compromises that would allow the progressive forces of the country to unite in bringing positive political change.

The good news is that President Musharraf is waking to the fact that he can no longer hold back the forces of democracy in his country. The bad news is Pakistani politics remains as divisive as ever and restoring democracy is likely to be messy. Though the process may be bumpy and the outcome by no means certain, there is no turning back now. The Pakistani people have been energized by the reinstatement of the Supreme Court Chief Justice. They are counting on free and fair elections to usher in a new political dispensation that will break the military's grip on power. Washington should welcome and support the democratic impulses in the country, which will help in countering the parallel trend of rising extremism.

The desire for a return to democratic politics in Pakistan has been building for some time. The brewing anti-Musharraf sentiment found public expression in March when he attempted to dismiss the country's Chief Justice. Musharraf's gambit, aimed at thwarting any challenges to his presidential re-election plans, backfired badly and instead released the Pakistani public's bottled-up frustration with eight years of military rule.

Democracy and Extremism

The judicial crisis may have been the spark for the democratic movement, but a wave of suicide attacks over the last few weeks has heightened the urgency for reconciliation between the military and secular democratic forces to address together the growing threat from religious extremism. The extremists are trying to exploit political uncertainty by sowing discord and confusion within society. The brazenness of their actions over the last month - attempting to take on the Pakistan military at the Red Mosque to provoke an Islamic revolution and committing a series of suicide attacks on both Pakistani civilians and security personnel - have helped clarify the political situation by demonstrating the importance of democracy as a defining characteristic of Pakistan's identity versus the idea of Pakistan as an anti-modern theocratic state.

Some in Washington have a misplaced fear that holding free and fair elections could somehow strengthen the extremists. In reality, religious extremists will be less likely to gain power if a credible election is held on schedule later this year. In a poll conducted in Pakistan by the U.S. International Republican Institute in March, the coalition of religious parties (the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal-MMA) polled nationally at about 5 percent; the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) at 26 percent; the Pakistan Muslim League/Quaid-e-Azam (PML/Q) at 24 percent; and the Pakistan Muslim League/Nawaz (PML/N) at 15 percent. Allowing key political leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan to compete in next year's elections would buoy the secular parties and likely force the MMA to break into its constituent parts, leaving the religious parties with diminished power over the country's future direction and policies.

If, on the other hand, Musharraf were to backtrack on his commitment to restore democratic politics, i.e., postpone the elections and/or refuse to separate the positions of President and Chief of Army Staff, he would likely fuel public anger and discontent, and further the extremist agenda.

Deals vs. Process

Though the Musharraf-Bhutto talks are still evolving, it appears they are seeking an agreement that would establish a mutually acceptable caretaker government to hold general elections by early next year, allowing Musharraf to remain President minus his military uniform. It is the latter part of the equation that raises the most questions. The timing of President Musharraf's removal of the uniform could be a critical element in making the deal workable. Ms. Bhutto has already said publicly that the courts will dispute the legality of a re-election bid by Musharraf from the current assembly while still in uniform. "Should General Musharaf seek re-election from this assembly, the matter will end up in the judicial forums," she stated flatly. Musharraf has taken bold steps before and he may be prepared to take his chances with the courts over the matter. His only other options appear limited to either seeking re-election from a new parliament without the uniform (a highly risky gambit, given that he has no political base and derives his power from his military position) or stepping down altogether.

Although the meeting between Musharraf and Bhutto is a positive step towards the restoration of democracy, the two leaders need to remember that too much backroom politicking and deal-making can undermine the democratic process. Transparency, accountability and political choices are key elements of a successful democracy. The PML-N, representing the center-right of the political spectrum, is a major force in Pakistani politics and the party's full participation in the elections will further strengthen the overall democratic process.

Credibility is what Counts

In the end, the credibility of the democratic process leading up to the general elections and the handling of the elections themselves will determine the country's future. The courts have been emboldened by the reinstatement of the Chief Justice and will almost certainly play a greater role in checking the Presidency. Witness the Supreme Court's decision last week to grant bail to Javed Hashmi, a prominent opposition leader jailed in 2003 on charges of inciting mutiny in the army, forgery and defamation.

Ayman al-Zawahiri's statement inciting Pakistanis to jihad over the Red Mosque confrontation and his proclamation that "elections will not save you" directly challenge the authority of the Pakistani government. An important element in fighting extremism is to ensure that people have a compelling alternative to the anti-state ideology of al Qaeda. In other words, if the Pakistani people feel they have a voice in the governing of the country, they will be less susceptible to al Qaeda ideology.

Pakistan has been ruled by military regimes for over half its existence. The military's pervasive involvement in civilian affairs has stifled the development of civil society and democratic institutions. The time has come to reverse this trend. Pakistan's future stability depends on it.

Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow on South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in The Friday Times