Pakistan’s autocratic president, Pervez Musharraf, has been in power for the past eight years. In November 2007, he gave himself another five-year term as president and stepped down as the army chief, six years past his retirement date. When the country’s Supreme Court objected, he removed the Chief Justice and several other judges, declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3 and suspended the constitution. Police arrested thousands of protesters, including a quarter of the nation’s lawyers.
The reason Musharraf stays in power after violating every norm of political decency is that he has convinced Washington that if he goes, the nuclear-armed nation of 165 million will be run over by religious fanatics. This message has resonated well with the Bush administration, which has rewarded him with $10 billion in aid since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has looked the other way every time he has violated the constitution, calling it an internal matter for the people of Pakistan.
Musharraf seems to be singing from the songbook of the French King Louis XV, who is believed to have said, Après moi, le déluge, which means, “After me, the deluge.” The ex-general has successfully sold a false dichotomy to the American public, that Pakistan is a special case in which one has to choose between his dictatorship or that of the jihadis. Framed this way, he emerges as an “enlightened moderate” or as the lesser evil. The Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the rioting that followed accentuated this viewpoint.
However, there is a third option. Return Pakistan to constitutional rule, as envisaged by its founder, M.A. Jinnah.
Jinnah was one of the top-ranking lawyers in British India and envisioned Pakistan as a secular and democratic state. After his death, his political party, the Pakistan Muslim League, carried out his views. Today this party has split into two factions: one allied with Musharraf, the other with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Both are secular, as is the People’s Party, founded by Bhutto’s father in 1967.
The religious political parties have never dominated the political scene. The only election in which they put up a strong showing was one conducted by Musharraf in 2002, which was marred by voter fraud and significant restraints on the secular parties. Neither Bhutto nor Sharif was allowed into the country. Musharraf feared them so much that he amended the constitution to prevent either from being re-elected prime minister.
Even now, the power base of the religious parties is confined to the minority western provinces that border Afghanistan and Iran. Admittedly, as the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, their political base has deepened. But they are unlikely to ever gain sufficient momentum to run the country because their value system is at odds with that of mainstream Pakistanis, most of whom are religious but not interested in large-scale imposition of the social and political restrictions espoused by the Taliban.
Pakistanis are tired of Musharraf. For many years, they supported him because he represented a new beginning with political stability and robust economic growth. Now inflation is rampant and income inequalities have reached alarming levels. Much of the recent rioting was a clash between those who owned private property and those who did not.
After he declared the emergency, the International Republican Institute released a survey of Pakistani public opinion that showed that two-thirds of Pakistanis wanted Musharraf to resign, and a majority wanted the army out of politics. In late November, in an unprecedented act, about two dozen retired senior military officers called upon him to restore the justices of the Supreme Court and to release all political prisoners.
Musharraf has not budged an iota. He contends that Pakistan’s Supreme Court justices were endangering the return to democracy by indulging in “judicial activism.” This is quite a gratuitous assertion by a man who in October 1999 came to power through “military activism” and who rules through an order that prostitutes the constitution by protecting him from any future prosecution.
The reason Musharraf has not budged is that he continues to enjoy the unstinted support of the Bush administration. It’s time Washington dropped its one-man policy toward Pakistan.
The Feb. 18 elections must not be delayed any further and should be monitored by international observers for their fairness and transparency. The results must be honored, even if that means removing Musharraf from office.
A democratic Pakistan with a vibrant civil society would be Washington’s best ally in that volatile region. Once the people of Pakistan see that the United States is not committed to one individual, the anti-Americanism that is sweeping the country will dissipate.