The fall of Musharraf —Rasul Bakhsh Rais
President Pervez Musharraf has departed, having resigned to escape the humiliation of impeachment. Yet another painful chapter of Pakistan’s political history has been closed, ending the political uncertainty the country has been facing for the past five months.
Why painful? It may be considered a polite expression for an era when the General-President overthrew an elected government to save his position as the Chief of Army Staff. At least in previous military interventions there was a political crisis and some kind of government breakdown. That was not the case on October 12, 1999.
The ruling party had a comfortable two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and all political parties with remarkable consensus had passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Pakistan was on the road to democratic recovery but with the usual traits of autocracy that are embedded in the country’s political culture.
Musharraf came to power and ruled the country only as COAS, like his three predecessors. His uniform was his first line of defence and the army an instrument of self-empowerment and control. The day he doffed his uniform, he was no longer the master of his or the country’s fate.
The loss of the army’s institutional power was effectively the beginning of the end. Musharraf kept the uniform as long as he could, given the simmering resentment inside the army and outside, there was no option but to let go of that office.
Like Ayub Khan and Zia-ul Haq, Musharraf did three things to ensure his political survival: strengthened the power of the presidency through amendments (Ayub wrote a new presidential constitution); attempted to gain popular legitimacy through a rigged referendum; and created a political party — the PMLQ. As we can see from the unfolding of political events since his stepping down as COAS, and also in light of what happened to former military rulers, the manufactured political arrangements did not lost very long.
With the fall of Musharraf, Pakistan will be reverting back to a parliamentary form of government for the third time. It is remarkable that Pakistan’s democratic forces have a national consensus on three structural aspects of the political system: sovereignty of parliament, federalism and representative democracy. All these aspects have suffered greatly and our growth as a democratic polity has been stunted during the three long spells of military rule.
Disruption of democratic politics prevented the formation of a natural balance among institutions and the firming up of constitutional politics. The rise of ethnic conflict, sectarianism, militancy and extremism are some of the troubling legacies of military rule in Pakistan.
It bears repeating at this point what I have mentioned quite often in these pages: military rulers have left Pakistan in worse shape than when they took over.
So what really pulled Musharraf down from his throne? Perhaps his own follies are responsible for his ignoble exit, as he begged foreign powers to help him get an honourable way out.
One constant theme in human history is that arrogant rulers always underestimate their opponents and have unwavering belief in their power to destroy anyone who crosses them or stands in their way. History is replete with many examples how the weak and the ordinary finally threw the tyrants out, with some meeting more humiliating ends than others. Our own history contains many lessons; but who really cares when everything is bent to the will of the ruler, including the Constitution, the courts and all state institutions.
The threat of brute force, political manipulation, use of for-sale political opportunists, and manufactured consent have proven temporary and weak instruments of power. In our culture, we often blame the victim — when military rulers capture the state, we unfairly find faults with the Pakistani society.
All military regimes have been a common enterprise between an ambitious COAS and political opportunists willing play along to enjoy privileges of power.
It is true that civil society, democratic forces and the media in the past have been weak, and the opportunist syndicate faced little and fragmented opposition. Only the political and civil society groups of the smaller provinces put up consistent and tough resistance to the military regime. They faced a double peril: loss of constitutional rights and provincial autonomy.
There will be debate in Pakistan on who really defeated Musharraf and his regime. The two major political parties of course will stake a bigger claim than others for the mandate they received in the elections and the political oppression their leaders and workers faced during the Musharraf years.
The real credit for causing Musharraf’s fall goes to civil society and the media, both new actors on Pakistan’s social and political scene. In all new democracies, where the transition from military to civilian rule has taken place, these two actors have proved catalysts of political change, and the agenda-setters and messengers of political forces.
The birth of issue-based civil society activism goes back to the rule of another military dictator, Zia-ul Haq when urban, middle-class women organised protests and changed the women’s movement forever.
This time around, removal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan and his detention along with his family members ignited the protests and demands for his restoration. Unlike the past, the lawyers and civil society groups had no provincial or urban-rural boundaries. It was a truly national movement, driven by the demand for an independent judiciary.
The dream of democracy and constitutional rule is as old as the Pakistan Movement. What Ayub Khan and his followers, right down to Musharraf, did was to rob the nation of its original ideals. Taking the dreams of nations and peoples and substituting them with personal interests is perhaps a greater offence than even their legal and constitutional crimes.
Pakistanis have consistently attempted to take their ideals and their country back by launching democratic movements; a fact frequently ignored by students of politics and history.
The current movement, the fourth in our history, has finally succeeded with two remarkable positive gains: power has been passed on directly to parliament and elected political parties; and this transfer has taken place through the agency of peaceful protest, legal and constitutional battles, and under the eye of an open and free media. With success and confidence, these are the factors that will refine and develop democracy in Pakistan.
(Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com)