COMMENTARY
 
Why Pakistan Needs to Go beyond Musharraf
Weekly Pulse
August 15-21, 2008
Pakistan needs to go beyond Musharraf, if it wants to regain political stability, solve a myriad of economic problems, and fight religiously-inspired extremism and terrorism more credibly.

The victory of popular political forces in the February elections was perhaps the greatest gift of the year to a nation of 170 million people yearning long for democracy and the rule of law, even if this rejoicing moment was preceded by probably the saddest event in the country’s history: the December 27th murder of Benazir Bhutto.

However, as it turned out in the four months following the elections and the coming into power of an unprecedented coalition government of the country’s two main political parties, the PPP and the PML-N, that even after the complete routing of his self-created party, the PML-Q, the former General did not stop from sabotaging the newly-installed democratic government.

Musharraf did hibernate for a couple of months after the loss of his party in the elections, but, in the past month or so, he tried to re-assert himself by making threatening statements against the government. His Muhajir ethnic partner in Sindh, the MQM, provided the platform for the purpose.

The Backdrop

For its part, the PPP leadership wanted to move slowly against the Musharraf-led Establishment, which has institutionalized itself deeply in the state and societal fabric of the country since the military coup of 1999. Perhaps that is why it did not want to have an open-ended confrontation with Musharraf on the issue of restoration of higher judiciary under Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

After being elected unanimously as Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani did order the immediate release from house arrest of the Chief Justice and some 60 other judges—who were unconstitutionally deposed by Musharraf when he imposed Martial Law on November 3rd , or who had then refused to take oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO). But the PPP government under his leadership did not move beyond this. And that is why PML-N ministers withdrew from the PPP-led Cabinet in protest.

The PML-N’s stand on the judiciary issue was justified then, since the PPP leadership had agreed with hem in principle in March at Murree to restore judges through an Executive Order.

Natural Process

In retrospect, therefore, it could be argued that the consensus between the PPP and the PML-N leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, along with their smaller coalition partners, the ANP, the JUI-F, Independent members of parliament from FATA on the impeachment of Musharraf and restoration of judges according the Murree accord is a natural culmination of the democratic political process that began after the victory of popular political forces in the February polls.

Ideally speaking, Prime Minister Gillani should have immediately followed up on his historic declaration of releasing the arrested judges, with an Executive Order restoring higher judiciary under Chief Justice Chaudhry. By dragging the issue through introducing the so-called Constitutional Package, it annoyed its chief coalition partner on the one hand, and allowed Musharraf to re-energize himself. After four months of dilly-dallying on the judges’ issue, the party was back to square one. Confrontation had to happen eventually, and it is good that is has happened soon.

Musharraf had started to play his dirty game, by manipulating the differences within the PPP leadership, Makhdoom Amin Fahim versus Zardari, after the death of Benazir. He continues to play that card after the announcement of the impeachment move by the government. There are reports about presidential conspiracies to dislodge the coalition government in the Sindh province with the help of MQM, a government partner there, and some loyalists of Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

Broken Promises

However, the government’s move to impeach Musharraf has already gained enough momentum, and it is now only a matter of time when he is ousted from power. The important question now is whether that will happen through impeachment or he will himself resign, as he had declared in an interview with a Singapore-based newspaper, The Straits Times, a month before the elections.

In that interview, published by the paper on January 11, Musharraf’s exact words were as follows: “If that (impeachment) happens, let me assure that I would be leaving office before they do anything. If they won with this kind of majority and they formed a government that had the intention of doing this, I wouldn't like to stick around.”

At a time when many of PML-Q members of national and provincial assembles and Senate are fast abandoning Musharraf, the political options for him have narrowed down. His successor in the army, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, is interested in the army’s withdrawal from politics and civilian affairs, and the reason for that is quite logical.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the army has suffered a major setback in terms of its public image. This may be due to its military operations in FATA and Swat against religiously-inspired terrorists. But the primary reason for the purpose seems to be Musharraf’s years-long rampant dictatorship.

It is this dictatorial legacy of Musharaf which has enraged almost all sections of Pakistani populace, from radical Islamists and conservative right to liberals and secularists, lawyers, businessmen, almost all of the mainstream national and provincial political forces (PPP, MPL-N, ANP, JUI-F, and APDM partners), except the MQM, the leftover of PML-Q and a few other cronies in the civilian and non-civilian domain who enjoyed enormous perks and privileges during the Musharraf era.

Destiny Syndrome

Rightly so, therefore, Musharraf today stands on a sinking ship, isolated, refusing to see the writing on the wall, which clearly reads that Pakistan has no place for him. He is no doubt a modernist, liberal and secular person. But he is a prisoner of his own past: the military background, the basis of his dictatorial nature, his inability to share power, so on and so forth.

As it happens to all dictators in the end, they start having a destiny syndrome: that leads to a false thinking that if they go down, the country will go down as well. So, self-interest becomes national interest. After nearly nine years of his rule, now we know that behind his popular slogan of “Pakistan First,” it was always “Musharaf First.”

Before the impeachment move becomes a reality, efforts are under way to convince or force him to resign. Perhaps that is why US ambassador Anne Patterson has been so active in the past week, meeting him, Zardari and Sharif so that a safe exit could be guaranteed to Musharraf, who has at least served the American cause in the War on Terror, which will go on without Musharraf.

However, if Musharraf wants to go down fighting—a statement he has made several times—then be it. The danger is that if he does not resign before the impeachment, then we are not merely talking about his humiliating fall from power through a simple ouster via impeachment. The popular political forces, the judicial establishment, and the civil society have enough grounds to make a “horrible example” of this dictator. He cannot expect the sort of security he needs after removal from power. Then there might be endless judicial proceedings against him in the court of law.

Only time will tell us as to what happens to him, whether he resigns and departs from the country with family, or is thrown out of power through impeachment and then face a very uncertain, difficult, and, most probably, disgraceful, future at home. And that moment is not too far.

Impact on Political Stability

However, two other important questions are worth discussing here: First, what impact his departure from power will have on the political stability in Pakistan. Well, the answer is simple: Musharaf’s continued stay in power has been the single most important source of political instability in Pakistan. And once this major source of instability is removed from the scene, then, naturally, it will have a positive impact on political stability in the country.

The coalition partners have agreed to move on to the restoration of judges according to the Murree declaration as soon as Musharraf is impeached. Suppose PPP and PML-N leaders again develop some differences on the matter, even then what will happen is that they will part ways.

As far as the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) is concerned, after Musharraf becomes history, then the coalition partners as well as the restored higher judiciary can together decide to move forward in the national interest, while keeping aside irritants of the past, mutual acrimonies and corruption allegations specifically targeting civilian politicians.

Implications for War on Terror

The second point worth-mentioning is how much impact Musharraf’s departure will have on Pakistan’s ability to combat religiously-inspired extremism and terrorism. Again the answer is that it will have an extremely positive impact. The reason is simple: Nobody likes terrorism. In Pakistan, scores of suicide bombings have enraged people.

The question is if the people by and large do not approve of an activity that kills innocents among them and scares all others, then why have they not yet risen en masse against radical religious elements preaching extremism or engaged in terrorist activity? It is because so far they have been up against a bigger devil: that of dictatorship.

Who says that the lawyers and civil society who have struggled for the rule of law and the respect for the constitution particularly since March last year are fundamentalists or fans of al-Qaeda?

What the United States and the West need to understand is that the opposition to Musharraf’s rule is essentially of secular nature. No one is denying here that radical religious elements or terrorists will not be delighted when he departs from the scene. They will, but for their own reason. The Islamists’ hatred for Musharraf should not be confused with the massive, secular opposition to his dictatorship.

Once he is gone, then Pakistanis, who may be by and large religious conservative, will have all the time to focus on the evil of extremism and terrorism. Once that happens, and if the government is also led by civilian democratic forces, then a multitude of economic, political and societal options—ranging from the preferred “hearts and minds” campaign, economic development and educational reforms initiatives to the use of force as a last resort against those who still want to preach extremism and commit terrorism—can be exercised effectively.

In sum, both for political stability in Pakistan and letting the country to fight extremism and terrorism more credibly, the first and the only pre-condition for now is Musharraf’s ouster from power.