PAKISTAN ON THE TIGHTROPE
This article examines Pakistan following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the recent parliamentary elections within the confines of the challenges that arise from the need to embrace democracy. The article accepts that Pakistan must contend with a powerful military, rising Islamism, tribalism, an unstable political system, quarrelling leaders, and difficult foreign policy issues while it strives to continue to play its role in the global war on terror. The author concludes that only by uniting the different actors and seeking a stable Pakistan can the Islamist threat be defeated.
For over 60 years Pakistan has hovered on the cusp of two worlds: the Islamist and the liberal democratic. Pakistan’s flirtation with Islamist rule began
The process of reform and the presence of a radical Islamist opposition have led to some major incidents such as the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege in Islamabad and the intensification of military and conversely terrorist campaigns in the Swat Valley, Waziristan, and across the country. Actions by the Pakistani authorities have drawn a violent response from the Islamists, causing a considerable increase in attacks mainly against Pakistani politicians and the security services personnel. This has led to increased and unprecedented levels of political tensions in the country, especially between the executive and the judiciary, as well as among the various political parties. The issue of the military has remained highly central to Pakistan and its development, even though under the new chief of the army, General Kiyani there has been an attempt to curtail and reduce the role of the military in civilian affairs. However, it is highly unlikely that the military will relinquish its preeminent position in Pakistani society and accept real civilian oversight into its affairs. At the same time, the Islamists (whether those affiliated with a political movement or those that embrace violent change) are also unlikely to stop their clamor for Pakistan to enhance its Islamic identity. The urban professionals remain committed to the removal of the army from Pakistani politics and the restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan.
Pakistani politicians face the unenviable task of trying to bridge the gulf between the different worlds. Since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on December 27, 2007, this task has become much more difficult, as the country appears more divided. The government and the military are determined to defeat the Islamist tide, while a coalition of liberal democrats, lawyers (urban professionals), ethno-nationalists, and Islamists warn that Pakistani democracy has no future so long as Musharraf and the military run the country. Thus, Pakistan is in the midst of a violent (bloody) debate as to its future: Should the country embrace Western-style democracy or accept an enlightened quasi-military dictatorship? Should it simply retain its Islamic features or expand them? Furthermore, what role should the army play in Pakistani society and politics? As things stand, the key actors involved will have difficulties compromising on their main agendas, thus ensuring that the debate rages on. At the heart of the debate lies Musharraf’s position in Pakistan, specifically his role in Pakistani society. This has major political ramifications for the country because of the close alliance Musharraf has built with the Bush administration and the United States in general.
ISLAM, MILITARISM, AND DEMOCRACY
There are two powerful forces contending for authority and blocking the creation of a stable liberal democracy in Pakistan: Islamism and the politically ambitious military. While many have advocated democracy as the best tool for achieving progress and stability, the concept of “illiberal democracy”–conceived by Fareed Zakaria, a former editor of Foreign Affairs and Samuel P. Huntington’s student–is particularly useful when examining Pakistan. Zakaria argues that since the USSR’s collapse, countries have been embracing a system that combines multiparty elections with limited individual liberties and freedom. He distinguishes this system from traditional Western-style democracy–in which free and fair elections occur alongside individual liberty and human rights (known as “Constitutional Liberalism”)–with the latter being more important in terms of determining the level of freedom in a society, as it focuses on the role of the individual in society.
The concept of “illiberal democracy” fits Pakistan well, in part because of religion and the determination of the state to crush opposition. On the issue of religion, the Islamist vision ensures that greater individual freedoms will be curtailed substantially. Islamists maintain that only their interpretation of Islam is true, meaning that they do not embrace one of the key fundamentals of constitutional liberalism: freedom of choice and freedom to practice one’s own religion as one sees fit. Thus, to counter the rise of militant Islamism, Pakistani authorities increasingly turn to repression (understood as extra-judicial killings, closure of private media outlets, imposition of military or emergency law, and other such measures), which undermines the very essence of the democratic state.
At the other end of the spectrum, the powerful role that the military has in Pakistani society ensures that Pakistan functions as an “illiberal democracy,” as in true democracies the military is subservient to civilian bodies. Owen Bennett Jones notes that the military controls five major businesses in Pakistan, providing it with billions of dollars. At the top of the list is Fauji Foundations, run by the Defense Ministry. The foundation’s assets include sugar mills, chemical plants, and fertilizer factories, as well as a gas company and power plants. Significantly, the foundation runs its own welfare program and owns more than 800 educational institutions as well as over 100 hospitals. The second largest military business is the Army Welfare Trust, controlled by General Headquarters (GHQ). The trust owns the Askari Bank, farms, property, sugar mills, as well as petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and shoe plants. Allegedly, about half the profits that GHQ gets from its ventures go towards army pensions. The military has three other important enterprises: the Frontier Works Organization (FWO), a road construction business which since the mid-1960s has undertaken projects worth around half a billion dollars; the National Logistic Cell, a transport company with over 2,000 vehicles which employs army officers in service; and the Special Communications Organization, which provides Pakistani-held Kashmir with telecommunication services. In sum, the presence of Islamists and the ability of the military and security services to operate with little judicial or civilian oversight ensure that constitutional liberalism, which is fundamental in the development of a true democracy, remain inherently weak in Pakistan.
THE ZIA LEGACY
General Zia-ul-Haq left a tremendous imprint on Pakistan through his Islamic reforms (Nizam-i-Mustafa) as well as through his support for the Afghan resistance movements from 1979 to 1989. These two issues were Zia’s passion. In terms of his Islamization, Zia reformed the legal system to establish Shari’a-based courts, eradicated interest-based banks, and made zakat (Islamic alms) compulsory. He promoted Islamic doctrines in the media and education (the madrasa system). He allowed religious movements, such as Jama’at-i-Islami and Tablighi Jama’at to operate inside army barracks and convert military personnel, a substantial move from the quasi-secular British-organized army that operated in Pakistan following partition. The consequence of the presence of religious movements within the military was arguably to create a cadre of Islamists within the military with an Islamist vision of Pakistan for which they were willing to kill and be killed.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 further linked Afghanistan’s future with that of Pakistan, as Pakistan played a major role in the campaign to evict the Soviets. Pakistan’s involvement there has had a number of consequences, especially in heightening the powers of the illiberal forces. First, it strengthened the security services, especially the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in Pakistan–which ran Pakistani involvement in the war in Afghanistan, as the ISI received vast sums of money from the Saudis and the United States that it distributed as it saw fit. This greatly empowered the director of the ISI, who seems to be second in importance after the chief of the army. The Afghan jihad also led to the proliferation of militant Salafi Islam via the madrasa system, as seen with the Dar al-Ulum Haqqaniyya school, from which many of the Taliban leaders came. Under Zia, madrasas increased from around 890 in 1971 to almost 3,000 by the end of the 1980s. These schools have remained in Pakistan, especially in the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan borders.
THE ERA OF BENAZIR BHUTTO
Benazir Bhutto’s two terms as Pakistan’s prime minister (December 1988 to August 1990, and July 1993 to August 1996) drew tremendous interest and controversy. Bhutto never completed either one of her terms, as she was removed from office both times over allegations of corruption and malfeasance. In retrospect, one could argue that Bhutto was a politician of extremes.
Benazir’s first term lasted about 20 months, until President Ghulam Ishaq removed her from office. After spending the next three years in political opposition to Nawaz Sharif’s government, she returned to the office of prime minister, but again did not see out her full term; in 1996, President Farooq Leghari, a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) nominee, dismissed her from office. These allegations dogged Benazir throughout her political career, causing her great difficulties, as after all it is difficult to champion reform–especially democratic reform–with a tainted reputation.
Assessing Bhutto’s tenure from a political perspective is difficult, especially as she first entered office with a very weak mandate. The PPP won majorities in Sindh and the North West Frontier Province but failed to do so in the Punjab and Baluchistan. Moreover, she did not have a majority in the National Assembly, having secured only 92 of the 207 seats. In addition, Bhutto had to work with problematic allies (known at the time as the Movement to Restore Democracy, MRD), which she later claimed had abandoned the alliance for its own selfish political reasons. What is more, Bhutto and the PPP needed to contend with the Zia-organized state machinery that strove to undermine her popularity by using unfair legislation, the judicial system, and other means. The lack of a mandate and a problematic coalition imposed great hardship on Bhutto, a woman in her mid-thirties carrying a tremendous political legacy, while also recovering from childbirth.
The legacy of Afghanistan coupled with a powerful military establishment and a formidable security services machinery both unwilling to have their wings clipped by a civilian leader also proved to be a major obstacle for the inexperienced Benazir. Her inexperience (she was only 35 when she became prime minister, her first political position) showed when soon after taking office in 1989, she appointed retired Air Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan to head a four-man intelligence reorganization committee. His purpose was to curb the powers of the ISI. As one of Bhutto’s ministers said at the time: ‘We have no control over these people. They are like a government unto themselves.’ The problem was that it only aggravated the military and turned it further against Bhutto and her agenda. However, despite–or perhaps due to–the aforementioned difficulties, Pakistan did not improve politically, as the country retained its feudalistic and undemocratic characteristics. Yet some scholars, such as Mahmood Monshipouri and Amjad Samuel claim that under Bhutto:
The press gained freedom, young people were able to express themselves through Western-influenced music and were given media coverage, more women were seen and heard in the political arena, people in general were allowed to express their political views, and there was a prevailing sense of freedom in the air. The government avoided oppressive measures in an effort to build popular support, and overall, was liberal and tolerant of diverse political views. Such an atmosphere gave people hope for a better, more open future; the patron-client relationship of the syncretic political structure that for three decades had characterized Pakistan’s highly personalized politics effectively ended. Pakistan appeared to be on the verge of a new era of institutionalized politics.
Bhutto did not fare much better during her second term, and more importantly democracy remained an idea rather than a reality: human rights violations continued, as did sectarian and ethnic terrorist activity. She attracted tremendous criticism over her style of management, with the International Monetary Fund suspending loans to Pakistan due to Bhutto’s refusal to appoint a finance minister, which ensured that Pakistan experienced tremendous economic difficulties especially as the military continued to demand a large budget without accepting civilian oversight.
Socially, Benazir failed to deliver on the issue of women’s rights. In this, Bhutto was no different from other Pakistani leaders–democratically elected or military dictators–who failed to enhance and protect the role of women in Pakistani society (although in her campaign, Bhutto had focused on the need to empower women and for gender equality). In terms of the economy, Benazir sought to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher and reform the Pakistani economy in the hope that it would reduce widespread poverty. The reality is that Bhutto may have had an ambitious agenda, but she failed.
WHAT DID BHUTTO OFFER PAKISTAN? THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
Benazir Bhutto was not idle during her time out of office. Her most impressive achievement was the manner in which she reinvented herself as the only true savior of Pakistan by convincing European and American politicians and media that she could restore and enhance democracy while also fighting the Talibanization of Pakistan. A third issue that has become central to Pakistan was the increasing polarization among and within Pakistan’s political parties. This undermines Pakistani stability and prevents the efficient running of government, as political leaders spend more time denouncing each other than running the country. This was seen for example with the recent split within the religious alliance, with some supporting the 2008 parliamentary elections and others boycotting them (the JUI contested the election while the JI boycotted them). Jama’at-i-Islami Deputy General Secretary Mian Maqsood Ahmad, for example, has severely criticized both Jami’at Ulama-e-Islam and Nawaz Sharif for compromising on principles by agreeing to participate in the elections. Ahmad declared: ‘Qazi Hussain Ahmad tried its best to keep the religious alliance intact but now JI will no more compromise on its stance. We have no lust for power, stand by deposed judges.’
Preparing for the January 8, 2008 elections, which were postponed after Bhutto’s assassination, Benazir made several promises. They are important because they were adopted by her party. The first pledge was to improve the economy, as despite economic progress under Musharraf, millions of Pakistanis still live in abject poverty. Thus, Benazir pledged at least one year of employment to each of Pakistan’s poorest families, offering around five million people micro-financing so that they would be able to open small businesses. Her second promise was to deal with Pakistan’s crumbling education system. Bhutto claimed that she would offer all children between the ages of five and ten schooling by 2015. This was a highly ambitious plan, and there are major concerns about whether it is manageable–especially in the problematic tribal areas where girls often do not receive education because it is widely believed that educating girls is not very important, unlike in the urban centers. Moreover, the PPP is relatively weak (in terms of representation, influence, and patronage) in the tribal belt (the key parties in the area are the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal and the Awami National Party), which will undermine any serious PPP effort to introduce reforms in those areas. Benazir also promised to extend the national judicial system to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which is a very difficult initiative, as well as to improve the police force and to establish councils to help administer the tribal provinces.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
The key challenge faced by Pakistani civilian politicians is to win over the military. This is especially important for the PPP, which traditionally has a poor relationship with the military establishment. The military has historically opposed Benazir, just as it has other non-military politicians. The distrust shown by the military toward Benazir and to the PPP stems from a number of reasons. First, the military may feel that she and the PPP have never forgiven it for its collusion in the execution of Zulkifar Bhutto. The PPP has pursued an anti-military campaign in which the military is often portrayed as the root of many of Pakistan’s problems. This is a dangerous tactic, as it makes it harder for the PPP to develop a working relationship with Pakistan’s most influential actor. Second, neither Benazir nor the senior members of the PPP had served in the military, nor did they develop ties with the officer corps, a necessity if one is to survive in Pakistani politics. Third, Benazir and the PPP angered elements within the military by suggesting that that the military or the security service had a role in the Karachi suicide attack and Benazir’s death. Zardari made it clear that the first issue before the new government will be to ensure a UN investigation of Benazir’s assassination, while for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) the first issue is Musharraf’s impeachment and the return of the judges that Musharraf deposed in 2007. Significantly, since the election results the two appear to have worked out an agreement under which they will cooperate and govern Pakistan. However, it is already blatantly obvious that Sharif is gunning for Musharraf, while Zardari has a more pragmatic approach. This may create problems between the two, especially if Sharif re-enters the National Assembly, as he is planning to contest a by-election so that he can do just that. Closely linked to the issue of the military is the increasing Talibanization of Pakistan. The rise in Islamist militancy and terrorism in Pakistan is a major cause for concern, and one must wonder how Bhutto’s successors would be able to deal with the radical Islamists and tribal leaders without clear-cut support from the Pakistani military.
Following the February 2008 parliamentary elections, the PPP and PML-N appear to have decided to cooperate. Yet it is noteworthy that the two parties come from different spheres (the PPP is more secular and arguably left-of-center, while the PML-N is more conservative, especially as Nawaz Sharif was Zia-ul-Haq’s protégé). This suggests that long-term cooperation may become difficult once the election euphoria recedes. The Musharraf-backed Pakistan Muslims League (Q), the party affiliated with the president, has and will continue to have a harder time attracting allies from the opposition. From the president’s perspective, Musharraf appears to have alienated potential allies from the right (religious parties), which did very poorly in the elections, and the left (Benazir’s PPP). The religious alliance (Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal) is struggling because of internal dissension between the two main movements, Jami’at Ulama-e-Islam and Jama’at-i-Islami.
Pakistan stands at a precarious moment in its history. Each of the major actors (Asif Ali Zardari, Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif, the Islamic parties, and the military) has an agenda that makes it difficult to forge dependable alliances with the others, especially as coalition members constantly strive for supremacy for themselves rather than focusing on fixing the country’s problems.
Musharraf’s willingness to retire from the military and appoint a new chief of the army, as well as to end emergency rule, assuaged some concerns about returning Pakistan to the path of democratic development. However, there are major worries over his and the military’s involvement in the election process and the election campaign, not to mention the way that he has stacked the Supreme Court with his supporters, and it is clear that the battle for the Supreme Court and Chaudhry’s return to the bench has not ended. If anything, it will occupy the new National Assembly, as people such as Sharif hope that a Chaudhry Court will overturn his various legal problems. Sharif, after all, is not covered by the National Reconciliation Ordinance, which allowed Bhutto to re-enter politics. He is also barred by the constitution from holding a third term as prime minister.
In light of this assessment, it is clear that stability is impossible in Pakistan without cooperation among the major players. Conversely, real and true democracy is unattainable without a difficult-to-achieve combination of improved state control over its institutions, openness, and the defeat of violent radical Islamists. Highly relevant here are the words of former Singapore prime minister and architect of that country’s success Lee Kuan Yew: “I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to indiscipline and disorderly conduct which are inimical to development.”
Put simply, what must currently drive Pakistanis is the need for stability and security, as only with the achievement of these goals might true democracy one day sprout.
* Isaac Kfir is assistant professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC). He is author of ‘The Crisis of Pakistan: A Dangerously Weak State,’ Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3 (September 2007); ‘The Paradox that is Pakistan: Both Ally and Enemy of Terrorism,’ MERIA Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 2006); and ‘British Middle East Policy: The Counterterrorism Dimension,’ MERIA Journal, Vol. 10, No. 4 (December 2006).