Musharraf's Politics of Power
Weekly Pulse
March 16-22, 2007
Even though the current political crisis facing Musharraf particularly emanates from his March 9 decision to suspend Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, it is essentially rooted in his eight years dictatorial rule, legitimized by a pliable judiciary, opportunistic politicians, an ineffective civil society as well as consistent US-led international support to his role in the War on Terror. Besides creating a local bodies system to marginalize mainstream political forces and letting the self-created PML-Q win 2002 elections, Musharraf cut backdoor deals with the MMA—the latter’s help in the passage of the 17th amendment, for instance—to perpetuate his rule. At the same time, he also managed to keep the leadership of the two mainstream political parties, Nawaz Sharif of PML-N and Benazir Bhutto of PPP-P, in political exile, thereby preventing any mass political resistance to his one-man rule. Above all, the fact that he held the post of the Army Chief, the ultimate source of political power, along with the arbitrary position of a civilian president, also contributed to sustaining his singular leadership, even amid growing public disapproval of his regime’s support to US War on Terror and the rising gap between army-led State and public-aspirations-driven Society.

Such a suppressive political environment, geared towards sustaining the unrestrained power of one person, needed only a spark to unravel itself. By suspending Chief Justice Chaudhry, Musharraf committed a strategic blunder, which dictators so used to ultimate power eventually tend to commit, from which he tried to recover by cutting a US-sponsored electoral deal with Benazir, thereby paving the way for her return through National Reconciliation Ordinance. However, the public momentum for political change minus Musharraf that March 8 event triggered did not die down even after the Supreme Court restored the Chief Justice in July. Through imposition of emergency on November 3, Musharraf compounded the March 9 strategic blunder with a vengeance by sacking the Chief Justice again, suspending the Constitution, and victimizing lawyers, judges, journalists and political opponents. Even though Musharraf justified the imposition of emergency to combat growing challenge from extremists, its actual intent was to legitimize his controversial re-election as president. It was only in the wake of consistent pressure from Civil Society, backed by due US/international concern, as well as re-activation of mainstream political activity that Musharraf was forced to remove his army uniform and consequently take oath as a civilian president, itself a controversial office which is legitimized by hand-picked judges and whose continuity rests significantly on the political outcome of January 8 election.

Insofar as Musharraf’s power base is concerned, it has significantly eroded at least in public perception the day he reluctantly surrendered the post of army chief. The United States and its Western/Muslim world allies, because of Pakistan’s crucial role in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and the country’s tribal/Pashutn regions, would like Musharraf to continue as civilian President, even if domestic public approval of his leadership and the political legitimacy of his regime have currently eroded to an all-time low, a total reversal of what was the case in the aftermath of the 1999 coup. They seem to treat Musharraf’s continued stay in power as a civilian head of state as a stabilizing factor, one that would guarantee continuity in Pakistan’s counter-extremist/terrorist effort. Since Benazir has publicly professed to meet US expectation from Pakistan to “do more” in countering extremism and terrorism, the Bush administration wises her to lead the government after January election to achieve a more productive outcome in Pakistan’s frontline effort in the War on Terror. That is why the US and its Western/Muslim world allies prefer that all political parties should participate in the election, and they would most likely accept its results. The military, even under a new army chief, General Ashfaq Pervaz Kayiani, is committed to combating terrorism. Given that, in the perception of the US and its Western/Muslim world allies, a coalition of sorts between the military and the so-called moderate political forces, realized through the January election, will not only help resolve the current political turmoil, it will also help the country fight extremism and terrorism more proactively.

Little do the US and its Western/Muslim allies realize, and even care, that the ground reality in Pakistan has taken such a paradigm shift in the past nine months that no matter what Musharraf does to perpetuate his illegitimate hold over power, the current political turmoil will end only after he is no more around. The real structural political issue in Pakistan is the military domination of politics, which may take years and even decades to settle, given the deep political engagement of the military and its intelligence wing as well as the army’s rampant penetration in the civilian domain during the Musharraf era. For now, however, public aspirations for democratic political change, as reflected by judicial activism and civil society surge led by lawyers and journalists since March 9, are singularly focused on Musharraf’s removal from the national political scene. Given that, without restoration of the judiciary under Chief Justice Chaudhry and revival of the electronic media activity—in fact, re-creation of the pre-emergency situation in essence—the current political turmoil is likely to linger on, even if the result of January 8 election goes in favour of Musharraf’s game plan and meet the expectations of his external supporters, primarily the United States.

Therefore, in the aftermath of elections, if not before, Musharraf’s prospects of surviving the current political turmoil are quite dim. He will use the elections to secure a docile parliament and an obedient prime minister at home, while expecting consistent support for his leadership from foreign powers, especially the United States—a repeat of the same comfortable situation that he has become accustomed to in the past eight years. Only a few relatively insignificant political parties, including Jamaat-e-Islami of Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Tehrik-e-Insaf of Imran Khan, have decided to boycott the election. The PML-N will participate in the poll, but without the Sharif brothers. Benazir had threatened to boycott the poll after the imposition of emergency, even calling for Musharraf’s resignation, but under American pressure and demand from party members, she decided to participate in the election. The PML-Q of the Chaudhry brothers, with former Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Ilahi competing with Benazir for premiership, will benefit from its stay in power for full five years since 2002. A hung parliament, with a probable coalition arrangement between the PML-Q and PPP-P, and even JUI of Fazalur Rehman—and a political opposition led by PML-N—should be an ideal election outcome for Musharraf. This could enable him to lead as civilian president without any potent challenge from the elected government or politicians in opposition.

The post-election reality, however, could be exactly the opposite of what Musharraf may be expecting currently. Recent judicial activism and corresponding civil society surge were basically a reflection of a broader public desire to overthrow the suppressive system that Musharraf led. The leadership of mainstream political parties, the PML-N and PPP-P, which suffered all these years in political exile and finally made a comeback, also wishes to overthrow this system. However, their strategy for doing so may be different from civil society, which aspires for a radical, revolutionary course for the purpose. Given that, the mainstream political parties’ decision to participate in the elections may only be a tactical move on their part, as neither Benazir nor Nawaz would, in normal circumstances, like to allow Musharraf to lead the country for another five years in presidential office.

The reason Benazir did not agree to include the issue of restoration of judiciary in the Charter of Demands, and Nawaz did not press on it so hard, may have been guided by their shared concern that adopting a hard stand may dissuade Musharraf to lift emergency on December 16. Even if after the lifting of emergency the PPP-P and PML-N do not adopt a hard position, such as linking their participation in the polls with the restoration of judiciary along with other issues identified in the Charter of Demands, there is no guarantee that they would accept the election results. If Musharraf does not accept the demands laid out in the Charter of Demands, such as the replacement of the current Chief Election Commissioner, reconstitution of the present caretaker setup, termination of the local bodies system, then the election would most likely be rigged in favour of the PML-Q. Musharraf would like to have a considerable PML-Q clout in parliament to rule without significant political opposition from within the elected corridors of power. Having been associated with the PML-Q leadership, he would feel more comfortable for having them on his side after the election. Presuming the mainstream political parties’ decision to participate in the elections is guided by tactical considerations, reinforced by consistent appeals by external forces—American, Turkish and Saudi leadership in particular—then they may launch a mass movement against the regime, if the election results do not match their expectations. Benazir has already threatened to lunch such a movement in case of rigging in the election.

Even if we presume Benazir accepts the election results, thereby legitimising whatever Musharraf did after imposing emergency, and takes over as prime minister, there is every possibility of the consequent political dispensation collapsing within months. By temperament, neither Musharraf nor Bhutto would be able to stand each other. If the former is used to ultimate power as a dictator, the latter aspires for the same as an elected politician. A parliamentary system in which the office of indirectly elected president is stronger than a prime minister elected with popular votes is inherently unstable. Such a system is mostly likely to display greater instability with Musharraf as president and Benazir as prime minister, both well known for having uncompromising and egoistic personalities. If Musharraf could not get along with a rather docile prime minister like Zafarullah Jamali, how can he cope with a potentially assertive prime minister like Benazir? Their partnership, despite having the backing of Bush administration, won’t last even for a few months.

The very fact the two former prime ministers are back in the country, and that they have acted mostly in concert during the Musharraf era, means that we are not going to see the same sort of politics of confrontation between the two mainstream parties, the PPP-P and PML-N, as it was the case during the 1990s when the army-led establishment would exploit their political conflict, by supporting one against the other and consequently causing the recurrent dismissal of elected governments. Pakistan is currently having a qualitatively changed environment, with a potentially volcanic issue of restoration of judiciary under Chief Justice Chaudhry lurking in the background, which a former army chief whose political base rests upon politically bankrupt Chaudhrys in Punjab and who is ethnically identified with the Mohajir MQM in urban Sindh cannot twist for another five years in his favour.

More importantly, the army was Musharraf’s real power base. After removing uniform, he cannot expect the army to continue backing his leadership. The army top brass has been deeply concerned about the consistent erosion of army’s institutional prestige in the eyes of the people, partly because of its frontline role in combating extremism and terrorism on behalf of an external power, the United States and partly because of growing domestic public perception of Musharraf as an immoral (unreported tales of drinking, dancing and sexual pursuits), ethnically-linked Muhajir minority (especially their terrorist MQM, again something not reported much), his repressive rule, and primarily the growing economic suffering of the common man during his rule. Insofar as Musharraf is concerned, his close affinity with a US sponsored counter-terrorism campaign is only one of the reasons for the consistent erosion of his personal legitimacy or worsening of his personal credibility crisis. The suppressive domestic political conduct of his regime, the rampant growth in inflation, unemployment and poverty during his eight-year rule, and the unprecedented gap between State and Society during this long reign are other, more important reasons in this context. The deterioration of army’s image in the eyes of people is essentially an outcome of Musharraf’s rule, a development that the country has never experienced in its previous half a century history.

As long as he was the army chief, it was rather unimaginable to expect the military top brass to hold him accountable for bringing disrepute to Pakistan’s most powerful and disciplined institution in wider public perception. When he is no more the army chief, it is only a matter of time that the prestige issue may crop up in meetings of the corps commanders. The army under new leadership is most likely to take a decisive step against Musharraf if it perceives him to have become a liability for the institution. After all, even after doffing the uniform, he draws his sustenance as a former army chief, expecting his successor to obediently back the political scheme-of-things he has in mind for the next five years of his civilian presidency.

The army and its intelligence outfit plus pliable civil bureaucracy and politicians—the so-called establishment—would like to keep their stranglehold over political power, but if they perceive to have become the most important irritant in the process, there is no reason why they should not ditch him when the most appropriate time comes. For now, however, the army’s reaction will depend on how political events evolve in the coming months. If there is a mass opposition to his controversial presidential leadership after the elections, or if the whole political game plan that Musharraf is trying to translate into actual reality through the coming elections collapses for one reason or another, then we may see the reversal of pre-emergency situation, including the restoration of judiciary under Chief Justice, the lifting of all curbs on the electronic media, the re-holding of a general election that is free, fair and transparent. In that case, Musharraf will not have any space in Pakistan, and may be forced into exile, preferably in Turkey, by the army-led establishment. Musharraf has chosen to stay in the army house, even after removing the uniform, principally to save himself from another assassination attempt by extremist and other enemies, including those from within the state apparatus who may decide to eliminate him physically for whatever reasons.

If we presume the US to be another factor which matters in Pakistani politics, like the army, its response to the issue of Musharraf’s future will also depend upon what shape the political situation takes in the coming months. It is in US interest to see Pakistan in a relatively stable political state, as, in US perception, political turmoil in the country will hamper its counter-terrorism campaign. Only a political system that accommodates people’s growing democratic aspirations at a time when they are exposed to all sorts of views through the powerful medium of private news and views TV channels, can guarantee the sort of political stability required for an effective campaign to root out religious extremism and terrorism. Such stability will not be possible in the face of Musharraf’s bid to continue as a civilian president after elections and expect mainstream elected or opposition politicians to toe his dictatorial line.