There comes a time in the life of every political leader when things pall, words and gestures that once fascinated appear flat and tested techniques of teasing public opinion lose traction. When this happens in the democratic world, the leader is replaced, sometimes mid-stream, as in the case of Tony Blair. In other cases, there are term limits that ensure that the once wildly popular leaders, like George W Bush who have lost it, are quietly put to pasture. But what does a dictator like General Pervez Musharraf do?
The very act of toppling a civilian government and seizing power meant that he has decided to ride a tiger, and getting off one, it is said, is never easy. Two of his predecessors, Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, were effectively eased out of office and ended their lives in comfortable retirement. Zia-ul-Haq died in harness, though in an accident, or by assassination, we will never know. Musharraf, for one, is signalling that as of now he does not contemplate retirement from either his post as President or Chief of Army Staff.
But this is crunch time, and not just because of a wildcard in the form of a Chief Justice who refuses to play ball. Ever since he seized power in October 1999, he has managed through a variety of semi-legal devices, and a string of broken promises, to buy time till 2007 to remain President. The promise to doff the uniform by December 2004 has been long forgotten. But to continue as President after October 2007, he needs more than just promises and sleight of hand. How he manages to do this will have huge implications for Pakistan, as well as its various friends and foes — India, Afghanistan, the US and so on.
As dictators go, Musharraf has been a fairly mild one, his only major failing an overweening conceit. He set himself up as ‘Chief Executive’, rather than the Chief Martial Law Administrator when the army seized power from the ham-handed civilian Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif. Even after he dumped figurehead President, Rafiq Tarrar, and appointed himself President, he did take some pains to get himself endorsed by a referendum in 2002 which, however, was so overzealously managed that he won an improbable 98 per cent of the votes.
Musharraf’s present status rests on reasonably legitimate grounds. ‘Reasonably’ because in the Provincial and National Assemblies’ elections of October 2002, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were barred from contesting and many difficulties were placed in the way of these two mainstream parties. The result was that the pro-Musharraf faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML(Q)) came first, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party parliamentarians second, and an alliance of Islamists, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, surged to third position. In December 2003, through the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, Musharraf’s coup was legitimised, in exchange for a commitment that he would shed his army uniform by December 31, 2004. In addition, the National and Provincial assemblies elected him President for three years, till October 2007.
Musharraf did not keep his promise. There cannot be two centres of power in Pakistan. Musharraf knows that the moment he takes off his uniform and becomes a civilian president, he will have to contend with that other centre of power— his successor as Chief of the Army Staff. While Prime Ministers and Presidents have been persons of straw, the Army Chief in Pakistan has always been a real figure of authority, barring perhaps for a brief period when Jinnah was alive and when Z.A. Bhutto was supreme. So, now, it is all or nothing for Musharraf, hence the decision to continue to remain on the back of the tiger.
What Musharraf does with his uniform is something that will be decided in consultation with his army colleagues, and as of now they do not appear to be questioning his authority. But he must be re-elected as President by October 2007. His problem is that he cannot be sure that the result will be anything like that of 2002. In the past few years, the MMA that backed him in 2004 has frayed and anti-American feelings in the country increased manifold. The PML (Q) is not particularly popular and so the General has hit on a plan to have the outgoing National and Provincial assemblies re-endorse his candidacy before they are dissolved.
Can he be elected President by the same electoral college that elected him in January 2004 ? The possibility that this unusual procedure will be challenged in the Supreme Court has led to the pre-emptive strike on Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The Supreme Court, like the National Assembly and other formal State institutions, have so far proved quite complaisant. In fact, the Supreme Court took the oath under the Army’s Legal Framework Order, rather than the Constitution, after the October 1999 coup. Later, it rendered a judgment accepting the military rule on grounds of “State necessity”, even though it ordered elections by 2002. But for some reason Chaudhry has turned out to be a maverick, and the result is great turbulence in Pakistan’s establishment.
Though he positions himself as an advocate of “enlightened moderation”, Musharraf has also displayed a streak of ineptness that defies his otherwise deft handling of difficult situations. The no-win Kargil operation preceded his arrival on Pakistan’s political stage. But there have been several instances — the tough crackdown on Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the handling of the Mukhtaran Mai case, and now that of Chief Justice Chaudhry — that have revealed critical weaknesses in his political temperament.
The outcome of the current ‘war’ between Musharraf and large segments of Pakistan’s civil society is difficult to predict. Suffice to say that history is littered with generals who had to learn that it is easy to start a war, but quite difficult to predict how it would unfold. Pakistan is not your usual polity, because its army is not your usual army.
In a recent book, Ayesha Siddiqa has argued that the “burgeoning economic empire” that the Pakistan army has developed “establishes the officer cadre’s interest in retaining political control of the State.” It has so skilfully interposed itself in the system as a guardian of the Pakistani State and the vehicle of its nationalism that there is little opposition to its hegemonic political role. But though he gets the loyalty of his officer cadre, the Army chief’s primary responsibility is to the corporate interests of the entity he heads. These are not merely professional but also political and economic. And these have traditionally never been centred around one individual.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Musharraf has had to deal with an uncommonly difficult set of circumstances. He has had to join the American war against terrorism over the opposition of the average Pakistani, curb the jehadi struggle in Jammu & Kashmir in the face of Indian military pressure and contend with the biggest nuclear proliferation scandal in the world. He has had to face bitter sectarian and ethnic conflicts within Pakistan and attempts on his own life. He tried to turn some of these events into opportunities for transforming his country, but clearly so far, despite the best wishes of many, even in this country, he has been found wanting.
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