Pakistan and President-in-uniform

Pakistan and President-in-uniform
By H.K. Dua, who recently visited Pakistan

Bhurban, Murree Hills:
An hour-and-a-half’s drive from Islamabad, Bhurban is emerging as a hill station frequently visited by those who have been having a good time in Pakistan all these years. Beyond layers of hills and pine trees the Himalayan snowline can be seen in distance in clear weather.

Last week, over 100 Members of Parliament from South Asian countries (minus those from Nepal, of course) and 50-odd senior journalists assembled here to discuss issues of common concern to over 1.5 billion people inhabiting this part of the world. One of the many issues that seemed to involve the participants most was whether the countries of the region should go in for a South Asian Parliament, a sort of European Parliament, to take up issues which the governments normally avoid and to build bonds between the people and parliaments of the region.

Outside the conference hall, animated discussions were going on among those who were not to take the floor about the nature and state of Pakistan under President Musharraf and its future and the related questions that are daily discussed across the country – in the drawing rooms, at the tea shops or in the buses.

How long President Pervez Musharraf will continue in power? How long the Army will continue to rule Pakistan? Has he stuck a deal with Benazir Bhutto? Why has the General released Asif Zardari, her husband? Will Benazir Bhutto be allowed to return to the country and join politics? How serious will be her challenge to the General if she is allowed to come back?

Most important was the question: Will President Musharraf seek another term by standing for election in 2007 when his present term comes to an end? Will he hang up his uniform which, if worn, can debar him from contesting the presidential election under the constitution as amended recently? How will he get over the hurdle? In their discussions on the sidelines of the conference, the visitors from other countries did not get answers to these questions. Nor did their interlocutors from Pakistan had any to offer with conviction.

There are too many ifs and buts in Pakistan’s political situation.

General Musharraf is too convinced of himself and is not the kind of a man who gives up the task he had assigned to himself. And if there was any doubt in the media persons’ mind, the General’s Information Minister Sheikh Rashid removed these and made it plain at Lahore last week that the General will continue as President even after 2007. If all goes well for him, he can remain in power for another five years this way – a prospect General Musharraf would work for, but people of Pakistan are unlikely to relish, if not resist.

The General has made efforts to strike a deal with Benazir Bhutto for effect, or to impress the Americans, or the British who are acting as Washington’s messenger boys. May be the General thinks a deal with Benazir Bhutto will neutralise the PPP’s opposition to him, certainly in Punjab where it matters most.

While not much political significance can be attached to Asif Zardari’s release, it is quite possible that the General’s offer involves: (a) Benazir Bhutto’s return from abroad and re-entry into politics; (b) Power in the Sind province; and (c) Ms Bhutto’s accepting a chairmanship of the Pakistan Senate — a position next to the President in the constitutional order of succession but of no great political significance. Competent sources maintain that there is no offer from the General for her to become Prime Minister while he remains President.

Negotiations with Ms Bhutto appear to be stuck over such issues as her wish, if not demand, that the General must give up his uniform and contest the next elections as a civilian. But more than this, the negotiations seriously have run aground over Ms Bhutto’s demand that all cases the General has slapped on her should be withdrawn before her return, particularly the one relating to her Swiss bank accounts which the President is apparently keen to pursue. It is a serious hurdle.

With Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif having been sent into exile and the political parties fighting among themselves all the time, the General does not seem to be worried about his remaining in power until the 2007 election. He has also been skilfully managing different factions of political parties, liberally applying the divide-and-rule tactics and dangling carrots to some and wielding stick against anyone daring to challenge the Army’s authority.

Talks with Ms Bhutto or Nawaz Sharief’s men may have been meant for creating confusion among their followers before the local bodies elections to be held in July this year. Coming as these are two years before 2007, the local bodies elections can be important: They can bring out the pent-up anti-Army feelings of the people, vote out President’s men and cause him embarrassment, if not loss of power.

Some observers think that he may not even hold the local bodies elections if he finds the going tough for the political elements supporting him. But most people believe the General can smoothly manage the local bodies elections as he did the 2002 elections – for himself.

It is fairly certain that President Musharraf is not going to risk giving up his uniform. This means that he will continue to remain President and the Chief of the Army Staff and also contest the election in 2007. Parliament and the constitution, despite a recent amendment, are never regarded as hurdles by wilful generals who themselves have always come to power with means other than parliamentary and constitutional.

President Musharraf has recently made convenient changes in the Supreme Court, including appointment of a new Chief Justice. The judiciary has been quite obliging to rulers in uniform wielding unquestioned power, irrespective of constitutional niceties. It has justified the worst – at times invoking the Doctrine of Necessity.

With political parties in a state of confusion with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif out of the country and not much serious political activity in the street voicing effective political dissent, General Musharraf does not seem to be a worried man.

As often is the case with rulers of Pakistan, President Musharraf’s power comes from the Army whose mandate he has been so far enjoying. He will remain in power so long as the Army top brass are united behind him. Surprises have been sprung on Pakistan’s rulers in the past – as General Musharraf did himself six years ago – but he seems to be confident that he will retain the Army’s support for quite some time, considering the overall circumstances Pakistan is placed in.

The second source of President Musharraf’s strength is the United States which finds him a convenient and an obliging ruler of Pakistan, a frontline state in Washington’s reckoning.

With the Army and the Americans on his side, no ruler of Pakistan has really been worried about his future. President Musharraf will continue in power till he enjoys the confidence of these two vital constituencies that matter in Pakistan, whatever the internal situation in Pakistan or the people’s mood.