Pakistan’s Democracy at a Dangerous Crossroads

pakistan-musharraf-electionsBy Isobel Coleman

Pervez Musharraf, former general and president of Pakistan, returned to Karachi after years in exile to contest the country’s upcoming national election expected later this spring. As the election season heats up, many Pakistanis are expressing concern that the anticipated vote will be derailed for one reason or another. Imran Riffat, a former financial industry professional and longtime Pakistan observer, provides a guest post today arguing that Pakistan’s future would be best served by pushing forward with the democratic process, despite its limitations.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history, a civilian government recently completed its term and is expected to pass the baton to new representatives elected through a democratic process. But as new elections, expected in May, approach, many Pakistanis are skeptical that the military will allow the process to be completed in a fair and transparent manner.

Under Pakistan’s constitution, a caretaker prime minister leads an interim government until elections occur. Retired justice Mir Hazar Khan Khoso was sworn in to take up this function today. There is, however, wide speculation that the powers that be will not move toward elections but will instead prolong the interim government’s tenure indefinitely, using as justification the total breakdown of law and order in Pakistan.

Over the past several years, the United States has given Pakistan billions of dollars in aid, ostensibly to support the NATO effort in Afghanistan. But this did not benefit the common citizen. Instead the money was siphoned off to promote the institutional and personal interests of the military and its leaders. Today the generals have an incentive to preserve their fiscal autonomy and therefore to stave off a full civilian-led democracy.

Although the outgoing democratically elected government did not fully succeed in building a strong civil society or setting a high standard of good governance, military rule–whether direct or by proxy–would be no solution. Dan Markey recently expressed this view in a thoughtful CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum.

If the military succeeds in diverting the democratic process it would have grave implications for the over 180 million people of Pakistan as well as the country’s standing in the world. The economy is already in a perilous state, and continued increases in the military budget would further starve critical sectors like health, education, and infrastructure to provide electricity to the people.

Military dominance would also make it harder to address the mayhem caused by ever-growing sectarian and ethnic violence in Pakistan. The high command’s hawkishness, supported by its smug and misplaced posturing on its possession of a nuclear deterrent, is a threat not only to building democracy in the country but also to world peace. The implications of this are well addressed in Bruce Riedel’s recent book Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back.

Pakistan’s future as a stable and prosperous state cannot be achieved without an uninterrupted commitment to nurturing democracy. Neither military rule nor policy status quo is a viable option. At this critical juncture in the country’s history its leadership–which includes its overbearing military as well as its overactive judiciary–must take two immediate steps to enable Pakistan to step back from the precipice.

First and foremost, Pakistan must declare full-scale war on the groups destabilizing the country by carrying out depraved acts of terrorism within and beyond its borders. These actors are the very monsters created by the state’s security agencies and military. It is now imperative to pull the plug on these illicit partnerships.

Second, leaders must realize that Pakistan’s interests are now better served by having a constructive relationship with India, one based on respect for each other’s sovereignty and deepening economic ties. The widening trust deficit between the two neighbors must be stemmed and reversed. Pakistan’s failure, under pressure from its military, to fulfill its promise of extending Most Favored Nation status to India highlights a disturbing chasm between word and deed.

This two-pronged approach, though not a panacea for Pakistan’s total meltdown, is self-reinforcing. If Pakistan could eliminate the stigma of its fingerprints on abhorrent attacks inside India, the two countries could make progress toward more disciplined management of the Line of Control in disputed Kashmir. This, in turn, could create a more conducive atmosphere for progress towards an amicable agreement on the water-sharing disputes that remain unresolved after almost six decades. An improved understanding with India would also allow Pakistan’s military to scale back its presence on the eastern front and concentrate on fighting terrorism within its own boundaries. This would give a sense of security to Pakistan’s populace.

To save and build a stable and democratic Pakistan, its military, judiciary, and political leadership should immediately stop pursuing their own narrow agendas and work to build consensus on, and allow action towards, a roadmap that serves the broader interests of Pakistan and its people. Pakistan should also consider seeking the help of its close and trusted friends, countries like China and Turkey, to rebuild dialogue with India.

Finally, it is important for India to understand that it, too, would stand to gain enormously from a steady, peaceful, and democratic Pakistan. It behooves its leadership to do its part in creating a constructive and helpful atmosphere.

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