COMMENTARY
 
Predicting Pakistan’s Politics of Power
Weekly Pulse
June 16-22, 2006
President General Pervez Musharraf’s current Presidential term will expire on November 15, 2007. He wants to retain both the offices of the President and the Army Chief for another five years— that is, until November 15, 2012—after the expiry of the current presidential term. The amended 1973 Constitution requires that presidential elections take place within 60 days, and not less than 30 days, before the expiry of the presidential term.

However, Clause (4) of Article 41 also attaches a condition that “if the election cannot be held within the period aforesaid because the National Assembly is dissolved, it shall be held within thirty days of the general election to the Assembly.”

This means that if General Musharraf decides to seek his re-election as President, minus dissolution of the Assemblies, from the present Electoral College—which includes the National Assembly, the Senate and four Provincial Assemblies—then the next presidential elections will be held between September 15 and October 15, 2007.

The term of the present National Assembly and four Provincial Assemblies will also expire on November 15, 2007. Clause 1 or Article 224 states: “A general election to the National Assembly or a Provincial Assembly shall be held within a period of sixty days immediately following the day on which the term of the Assembly is due to expire, unless the Assembly has been sooner dissolved, and the results of the election shall be declared not later than fourteen days before that day.”

This means that if General Musharraf decides to seek his re-election as President, minus dissolution of the Assemblies, from an Electoral College constituted by the Senate and the new Assemblies, then the next general elections to elect the National Assembly and four Provincial Assemblies will take place between November 15, 2007 and January 15, 2008.

What could be the possible options for holding the next Parliamentary and Presidential polls, and their respective pitfalls?

If popular expectations or apprehensions are any guide, General Musharraf will prefer to seek re-election as a uniformed President from the current assemblies and the Senate, as there will be no problem in securing a simple majority vote from them. The political engineering in October 2002 elections, successive by-elections for National and Provincial Assemblies, last year’s local bodies polls and this year’s interim Senate elections—all guarantee that the ruling PML-Q and its allies in central and provincial legislatures can muster enough support for the purpose.

Although the same could be secured from the next Assemblies with the help of a vast manipulative apparatus at the disposal of the General’s State, domestic political challenges and external political pressures could give rise to uncertainties complicating the process towards re-electing General Musharraf as a uniformed President after the next general elections.

General Musharraf’s re-election from the current Assemblies also suits PML-Q and its allies at central and provincial levels if they are able to reach a Machiavellian deal with him. This would simply mean that, in return for their support for his re-election, General Musharraf would guarantee their return to the corridors of power by manipulating the electoral process leading to the next general elections as has been done prior to and during the October 2002 elections and other electoral exercises since then.

General Musharraf’s bid to seek his re-election as uniformed President from the present assemblies could be spoiled only through en masse resignation by the Opposition members of National Assembly and/or Provincial Assemblies. In that case, the Electoral College will be incomplete and, therefore, unable to re-elect the President. MMA leaders, especially Maulana Fazalur Rehman, have repeatedly hinted at such a possibility.

However, it is an established fact that MMA was instrumental in passing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, including the Two Offices Bill on one-time provision for the sitting President (read General Musharraf) to retain his military uniform. Moreover, MMA itself is divided, with the Jamaat-e-Islami clearly reluctant to give the General another chance, and the JUI led by Fazalur Rehman is perceived as having an unholy covert alliance with his Establishment.

However, on the question of en masse resignations, ARD appears to have reached a consensus. The Opposition would not like to exercise this option now, because in that case interim national elections could be held well in time before the start of the timeframe for the presidential election on September 15, 2007. If at all the en masse resignations option is exercised by the Opposition, it will be somewhere around mid-2007.

The Government of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz could, however, preempt the Opposition’s move by invoking Article 58 (1) of the Constitution and advising the President to dissolve the National Assembly. The President can also do the same under Article 58 (2) (B), but then he would have to cite a credible reason necessitating the dissolution.

In either case, a caretaker government will be appointed to supervise the elections for the new Assemblies, and the presidential elections will then be held within thirty days of the general election to the Assembly, as provided in the afore-mentioned conditional sub-clauses of Clause 4 of Article 41 and Clause 1 of Article 224, respectively.

General Musharraf can exercise another option by offering his resignation. In that case, Senate Chairman Ahmad Mian Soomro can take over as Interim President. Even though such a move may also be intended to seek a presidential re-election for General Musharraf along with military uniform for another five years from the present Assemblies, it will be ridden with uncertainties.

For during the interim presidency of Mr Soomro, General Musharraf will lose the status of an all-powerful President and will simply be an army chief. In such an eventuality, how far the ruling PML-Q and its allies will be willing to dance to the General’s tune is a matter of conjecture. Just as it will be difficult for General Musharraf to cite any credible justification of the current Assemblies’ dissolution under Article 58 (2) (B), it would be difficult to offer a believable explanation for his premature resignation from the Presidency. After all, seven years into power, the General’s key dilemma is to retain this power without appearing to be power hungry.

Why does the credibility of the President matter more than the legality of electoral politics?

Leaving aside the above narration about the holding of next general elections or interim elections and their alternative timeframes, the real question is whether Musharraf will be able to realize his wish to seek another five years as a uniformed President.

The evolving domestic political situation, the external political pressures, and international constraints, particularly the growing American demand for democracy in the country, suggest that realizing the popularly perceived presidential courses of action for the next parliamentary and presidential elections might be problematic, and securing an outcome conforming to the General’s wish of retaining a uniformed Presidency until 2012 next to impossible.

In any discussion about General Musharraf’s future political agenda, the legality or illegality of an issue does not matter that much. Perhaps the key issue here is that of credibility.

General Musharraf is popularly believed to have manipulated the law so frequently in order to retain himself in power with unprecedented arbitrariness—from usurping the office of the President from his predecessor, to the holding of a presidential referendum, to seeking a controversial vote of confidence from the current Assemblies—that his credibility to opt for a preferred electoral path for his own re-election and the election to a new so called parliamentary dispensation has been seriously put in doubt.

The credibility factor is related directly to the erosion of public support for the Musharraf regime.

Reasons why the people seem to aspire for a more democratic government in the country

First, the military-dominated rule has been sustained by marginalizing the country’s two mainstream parties, the PPP and PML-N and victimizing their leaders. Whatever is the state rationale for keeping Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in exile, the public sympathies for the two suffering leaders have only grown overtime.

Second, by siding with the United States in its war on terrorism, the Musharraf regime has isolated majority of the people, particular the conservative base of the religious parties.

Third, a majority of the public would desire a transparent election by a caretaker national government of the mainstream parties.

Forth, unlike 2002, now the country has a vibrant electronic media. No matter how much the state machinery tries to manipulate the media, it is rather impossible to hide the truth. Take the case of the 2005 local bodies elections as well as the National Assembly and Senate bi-elections, the political excesses committed in each of these by the state machinery or thugs of the ruling PML-Q and their allies, particularly the MQM in Karachi, were exposed by an increasingly vibrant electronic media as well as a section of the equally assertive print media.

How does the American factor appear to go against General Musharraf’s strategy for retaining uniform?

More crucial than the domestic public opinion, and the relatively hostile political climate as compared to the situation that prevailed prior to the October 2002 elections, is the changed external reality. In 2002, the post-9/11 international environment, especially the American effort to portray Musharraf as a key Muslim leader fighting its war on terrorism, had helped his regime to manipulate the process leading to the holding of elections, bring into power a pliable regime and, through post-election maneuverings, legitimize his arbitrary grip over power as a uniformed President.

There is already a role reversal situation for him this year. The new American perception about combating terrorism, as clear from the 2006 National Security Strategy, is that the ultimate anti-dote to terrorism is democracy. No surprise that, after the new strategy was made public in April, Richard A Boucher, the US Under-Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affair, stressed the need for civilian supremacy in Pakistan.

At a press conference on April 3 in Islamabad, Mr Boucher said in an answer to a question on the issue of military domination of the country’s politics: “We firmly believe in civilian rule, civilian control of the military…It’s part of the democratic process.”

Even though President George Bush was not as categorical on the issue of democracy as Richard Boucher was, but he did secure a commitment from Musharraf to seek a “constitutional settlement” to the uniform issue.

In his joint press conference with Musharraf in Islamabad on March 3, President Bush categorically stated: “We support democracy in Pakistan. President Musharraf understands that in the long run, the way to defeat terrorists is to replace an ideology of hatred with an ideology of hope…The elections scheduled for 2007 are a great opportunity for Pakistan. The President understands these elections need to be open and honest.”

Given that, it is clear that the Americans may not have any objection to his re-election as President, but they certainly would not like him to retain his military uniform.

For his part, however, Musharraf knows that without uniform he will not be able to manipulate the political process with impunity, as he has done all along. He may have tried to convince the Americans that, without uniform, his ability to wage war against terrorism in North and South Waziristan will be limited.

What is the likelihood of the pendulum of power tilting further in favour of the signatories of the Charter of Democracy?

The recent signing of the Charter of Democracy is a product of the political concert in London by the two main leaders of the two main political parties. The ganging up of the two mainstream leaders in exile for the sake of democracy, the gearing up of the Islamist Opposition at home as a reaction to Musharraf’s role in the war on terror, and the American push for civilian supremacy in the country—are all key factors that fundamentally go against his own wish to be the President and Army Chief for five more years beyond 2007. This is due to a couple of reasons:

First, America has a greater dictating power in the country’s domestic politics as compared to any other South Asian state, because of Islamabad’s repeated submission to Washington’s geo-political agenda for the region.

The second reason, essentially an implication of the first, is that the military-dominated state apparatus’s ability to manipulate the political process will erode if Washington decides to strengthen civilian democratic forces in the country.

Whichever timing General Musharraf chooses for his election and those of the next Assemblies, they will have to take place. In the current budget, an amount of 1.28 billion rupees is allocated for the elections, which means they may take place before the expiry of the present fiscal year next June. However, more important than the timing of these elections is how credibly they are held.

Secondly, when the elections take place, the situation is not going to be the same as it was prior to or during the 2002 elections. This time it would be difficult even for a hand picked Chief Election Commissioner to manipulate the general elections. Leaving aside the people at home, from the European Union to the British Commonwealth to the Americans—no one is prepared to give carte blanche to General Musharraf.

General Musharraf wants to retain both the Presidency and his Uniform. The Americans, along with the Commonwealth, may not have any objection to his Presidency, but they surely would not like him to retain uniform under the existing “geo-political circumstances.”