ISLAMABAD – As Pakistan stumbles toward democratization amid domestic political uncertainty, armed unrest led by Islamists along the Afghanistan border, and strained military relations with the U.S., a broad consensus in favor of the peace process with India survives almost miraculously.
However, proponents of the process on both sides of the border will have to do a good deal more to make it sustainable.
Many long-term trends point toward Pakistan’s evolution into a full and robust democracy. But many things can go wrong in the short run, especially as regards the restoration of the superior court judges dismissed by President Pervez Musharraf and the fate of the shaky ruling coalition between the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by Nawaz Sharif.
That is the main conclusion following a recent visit to Pakistan by this writer, during the course of which he met a cross-section of political observers, social scientists, former policymakers, and civil society activists.
Three clusters of factors are likely to determine the outcome of the present tussle in Pakistan between the forces of participatory democracy and conservative elements yearning for the continued dominance of the military in public life.
The first cluster consists of short-term moves by key players, including Musharraf, Bhutto’s widower and PPP co-chair Asif Ali Zardari, and Sharif besides a sustained and impressive movement by lawyers for the restoration of dismissed judges culminating in the ongoing roughly 400-mile-long march, from Multan to Islamabad.
The second set of factors has to do with the complex relationship between Musharraf, Washington, and the Pakistani army, which has come under unprecedented strain following the June 10 killing of 11 Pakistani soldiers in a U.S. missile attack of a tribal area near the Afghanistan border. Pakistan’s government has condemned this is as an act of naked aggression.
The third cluster is formed by the strategies of political parties in response to public opinion, which has emerged as a major force in Pakistan. It favors wholesome democratization and accountable governance.
Political turmoil has ensured that four months after national elections Pakistan still lacks a stable government. Most of the PPP-PML’s promises remain unfulfilled, and the PML is unlikely to return to the Cabinet from which it walked out in protest over the PPP’s refusal to quickly reinstate judges dismissed by Musharraf.
The two parties continue their uneasy alliance. "This was not unexpected given their disparate social and geographical bases, leadership backgrounds, and political priorities," says political scientist Rasul Bakhsh Rais. "The central question is whether they can hold together until Musharraf makes his long-overdue exit and the army’s role is weakened enough for a robustly democratic constitutional government to become possible."
However, Zardari lacks the courage to confront Musharraf and is under U.S. pressure to let him continue as president even if the judiciary is not restored.
Washington has convinced itself, against sober counsel, that Musharraf remains its best ally in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, although his record is patchy and it is not clear that the Pakistan army will defend him in a confrontation with the civilian government.
Zardari is probably too tainted by his involvement in corruption to want to risk a reopening of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which indemnified him against prosecution.
Many analysts, such as Karachi-based M.B. Naqvi, believe the NRO will be reopened if chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is reinstated. "Zardari," he says, "has simply appropriated the PPP after his wife’s assassination. He has no independent standing and is vulnerable to pressure, especially by the U.S."
Sharif is adamant that "Musharraf the usurper" must go at once. His clear anti-Musharraf, pro-judiciary stand, coupled with the public’s disenchantment with military rule has brought Sharif a groundswell of backing from traditional PPP supporters, including the left-liberal intelligentsia.
Sharif’s stand corresponds to the prevalent mood in Pakistan, which is against hierarchy and authoritarianism and favors democratization The impressively tenacious lawyers’ movement both expresses this phenomenon and has infused energy into it.
This is in keeping with recent social trends: a media explosion with free, robust debate; the spread of education; and the self-assertion of certain social groups. "The most important of these groups are self-confident urban and rural middle-income strata, which have broken some shackles of the old feudal order and are looking for opportunities of self-expression and a better future," says Rais.
"These strata instinctively distrust the army for its economic mismanagement and corruption, and demand greater accountability and better governance. For instance, Pakistan’s electricity supply situation is terrible, with blackouts for four to eight hours a day. Ordinary people know that a major reason for this is that the military regime didn’t add a single megawatt to generation in eight years," Rais added.
Popular aspirations also offer hope for relations with India. In recent Pakistani politics hostility with India has hardly figured. The new civilian government has vowed to continue the peace process with India originally launched by Musharraf four years ago. It says it will do so in a spirit of "grand reconciliation."
Political scientist Mohammad Waseem says this sentiment is rooted in major social trends. "A generational shift is under way from an India-centric military-bureaucratic and political elite, to one which was born in the post-independence period. The consciousness of the old elite was shaped by opposition between ‘Hindu India’ and ‘Muslim Pakistan,’ by the notion of ‘a clash of cultures’ defined by religion, and by bitter memories of partition."
However, says Waseem, "the new generation which has matured in the recent past does not define itself mainly by opposition to India. It is free of the burden of a uniquely violent past linked to the mass killings of partition. It does not associate Pakistan’s survival with hostility toward India."
India could also greatly help Pakistan’s democratization and demilitarization processes if it makes generous gestures such as unilaterally liberalizing imports of Pakistani goods and services and loosening the visa regime.
Much will depend on the talks to be held in Delhi at the end of June between India and Pakistan. If talks succeed, they may be followed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visiting Pakistan, and genuine progress.
(Inter Press Service)