Political Turmoil in Pakistan: An Unending Quagmire?

ISLAMABAD — The first glimmer of light appears, seeping through the darkness. Dawn is finally breaking after what has felt like a very long, dark night. The warmth of a new day engulfs those who awake early. As the lilting a capella voice, gently yet firmly, gradually eases into one’s sensibilities, it ephemerally intones the sanctity of the day declaring the greatness of God. Hope soars. Gradually, that voice is joined by others, from other mosques, calling the faithful to pray. But that lone voice gets drowned out by others using loudspeakers, a cacophony of now indistinct sounds whose timings are just off from one another. The intensity increases, and a listener now only hears yelling and shrieking, too much competition between each other, and now no clarity. Well, although today is shot, there’s still tomorrow.

No, that’s just not the way the story should go. Pakistan has been through this so many times before. How many times will there be a new beginning? Martial law — this time, simply termed an ‘Emergency’ — has once again been declared. But despite the violence, terrorism and even suicide bombings that pervaded Pakistan’s political landscape this past year, the government of President General Pervez Musharraf has focused its attentions on dismissing the Supreme Court, imprisoning lawyers and social activists, and silencing private media outlets which it nurtured until recently. Musharraf swears he will reinstate democracy just as soon as elections are held, but democracy cannot emerge when one man is able to stand up and suspend a constitution, imprison the Chief Justice of a Supreme Court, and arrest civil activists demanding its restitution. Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan has been arrested for contesting two legitimate cases in front of the Supreme Court: whether the dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudary was legal, and if Pervez Musharraf was able to contest the October 6, 2007 presidential election legitimately.

Through most of its political history, Pakistan’s government has been controlled by the military. Despite Jinnah’s vision of a secular democracy, the influence of parliamentary processes have been limited. Jinnah died of cancer a year after the new country was born and his successor, Liaqat Ali Khan, was assassinated three years later. The ensuing political chaos combined with myriad social cleavages, the absence of a charismatic civilian leader with strong national standing, and the military threat from India created an opening for military rule to be widely condoned, at least for a while. The influence of the military in governing Pakistan remains potent today. Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political scientist who has researched the military extensively, contends that its influence extends far beyond the barracks in Pakistan as extended direct and indirect rule have enabled the military to spread out in the civilian administration, semi-government institutions, the economy and the major sectors of the society. Its clout no longer depends solely on controlling political power.

Musharraf claims to the BBC that he did not “go mad” nor become a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” though his actions in abrogating the liberal, parliamentary solutions he has championed since seizing power in October 1999 in the name of ‘enlightened moderation’ certainly don’t sustain his arguments. He notes nothing concerning what comprises the necessary components of a participatory democracy. As there is no national consensus on such vital, everyday matters as how to share water, the rights women inherently have, what comprises a ‘good education’ aside from having served time as a student, or even on how to curtail the rampant air pollution that has engulfed the entire country making it difficult for people from all classes to breathe, a shared vision of civil-military relations and the contours of a desirable, functional political system remain evasive.

The Pakistan military, for historical reasons, has long ago become a class in itself, serving its own interests foremost. It holds a unique class position in the country as it postures itself as the sole defender of Pakistan. Hostility with India had been an integral element of how the military has fashioned itself and created an identity. The conflictual relationship with India over Kashmir became a much more proactive policy in the 1990s, though this is now waning in part due to efforts towards rapprochement between the two countries. However, India no longer considers the expenditures — both financial and military — in Kashmir to be compelling and would rather invest in its economy and expand its horizons as the regional superpower. Pakistan, on the other hand, which has provided safe haven to the jihadis it had trained during both the 1980s conflict in Afghanistan and their subsequent involvement in Kashmir, must now quell the instability being wrought by extremist groups while ensuring its troops are not humiliated or compromised.

Yet these issues are critical to our understanding of Pakistan’s strategic importance in today’s world. What transpires domestically is now intrinsically related to myriad global concerns in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. The persistent uneasy relationship between Baluchis in Baluchistan and the federal government has culminated in explosions that have wracked the natural gas pipeline near Sui since January 2005. Baluchis had been demanding a greater share of proceeds from the sale of natural gas from their province to the rest of Pakistan. The resultant animosity toward the federal government over this matter essentially just added another layer to the pre-existing antagonistic relationship that harkens back to the 1970s provincial separatist movement. Context, however, is important. While the global community had the luxury to ignore the divisiveness that existed here in the 1970s, it can no longer do so today as U.S. and allied forces seek to hunt out insurgents who have ostensibly retreated from Afghanistan and taken refuge in the province of Baluchistan.

The October 2001 U.S. attack on and ultimate overthrow of the Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan has served to further exacerbate pre-existing tensions, which have concomitantly fueled local anti-U.S. resentment as the national government is seen as a staunch ally of the United States. In the picturesque vale of Swat, followers of Maulana Fazlullah — son-in-law of Sufi Muhammad, founder of TNSM in the 1990s and imprisoned since then — calling themselves the Pakistan Taliban have gone from hamlet to hamlet, putting up their white flags and declaring the Government of Pakistan no longer has jurisdiction to rule them. After committing a few beheadings, this Pakistan Taliban has met with no resistance as it conquers area after area. Few arrests have been made here; prisoner exchanges — of kidnapped military personnel for imprisoned Fazlullah supporters — are instead more common as Pakistan’s president seeks to retain the support of the military lest he be overthrown himself. Indeed, the day after Musharraf’s coup on himself — November 4, 2007 – news spread like wildfire throughout the country that another military officer had arrested Musharraf. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking for now, or an omen of what would be if the military becomes disenchanted.

Sectarian differences have been a particularly compelling issue not only in the ways various groups are negotiating changing power dynamics — and sometimes violently — between them, but also in the ongoing process of constructing civil society in the country. While political parties had been at the forefront of voicing demands in the past, today we instead see various contingents of civil society — lawyers, journalists, university students, human rights activists, among others – at the vanguard of the protest movement to restore the Pakistan Constitution, lift media restrictions, reinstate an independent judiciary, and allow for Pakistan to follow a path of participatory democracy.

Pakistan finally has the opportunity to create political and economic space for the masses in the country. Indeed, the reverberations from the Musharraf administration aligning itself with the United States against the Taliban since October 2001 has created both enormous political and economic opportunities for Pakistan as well as considerable social conflict. A new layer of animosity exists toward President Musharraf and his administration for supporting the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for carrying out a violent operation in Waziristan, and now for abrogating the Constitution in the name of fighting terrorism while imprisoning judges and clamping down on the media. I attended John Negroponte’s press conference this morning: he spoke of talking to Benazir Bhutto, but not of pushing Musharraf to reinstate the judiciary and lift the curbs on news media. Pakistanis are now concerned that the U.S. is attempting to micro-manage the political arena, resulting in further disaster.

These concerns, however, are further exacerbated by growing poverty in the country. Pakistan lags behind countries with comparable per capita income in most social indicators. According to the World Bank, while the “poverty headcount fell in Pakistan during the 1980s, from 47 percent in 1985 to29 percent in 1995, more recently, it has been increasing…” and that “poverty remains a serious concern in Pakistan. . . . more importantly, difference in income per capita across regions have persisted or widened.” Over a third of children under age five are inappropriately underweight, a telling statistic of the failure of development efforts to promote equity in development and opportunity.

How to get to the point where all members of the society can contribute openly to the country’s future, participate democratically and reap the benefits of social and economic development equitably is by far Pakistan’s greatest challenge of all. People must be able to access the state on their own merits, not solely through the systems of power and patronage in place today, which results in the view that corruption is rampant in Pakistan. Franky, it is, because this has thus far been the only way to get things done. In the best of outcomes, the mist will lift and Pakistan will hold truly free elections during the first week of January 2008. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Anita M. Weiss is co-editor of the book Power and Civil Society in Pakistan and professor of international studies at the University of Oregon. She is currently in Islamabad. Read other articles by Anita, or visit Anita's website.

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  1. Mike McNiven said on November 29th, 2007 at 1:27pm #

    How can an Islamic Republic lead to the creation of a civil society? Either the laws are “holy” or democratic! You cannot have both at the same time. Hope that your lectures are deeper than this piece!