Afghanistan crisis clouds Pakistan's political future

Military president has promised court to relinquish power

War On Terrorism

The World

November 02, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - While world leaders worry about what kind of government Afghanistan would have if the Taliban regime collapses, politicians here in neighboring Pakistan are asking the same kind of questions about their own country.

Here, they wonder what Pakistan, now under military control, will become if and when it returns to democratic rule.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, came to power in 1999 after a bloodless military coup, ending his country's civilian-run government.

Since then he has enjoyed unbridled power as the holder of all top positions in the government including chief executive, chief of the army staff and in June, by his own appointment, president.

Ruling by decree, he suspended the constitution and legislature and banned political party demonstrations.

But one year from now, Musharraf is expected to pack up and return to the barracks, giving away his supreme political control.

That's the deadline Pakistan's Supreme Court gave for national democratic elections to be held, allowing Musharraf three years to accomplish his goals of rooting out corruption and instituting desperately needed economic reforms in his debt-ridden country.

Pakistan's political party leaders wonder whether the crisis over Afghanistan will change that promise. So far, Musharraf has given no indication that he will do otherwise.

"The president is on record as saying he is committed to the nation's schedule for democratic elections. We hope he will stand by his word," said Makhoom Amin Faheen, vice chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, a major political party. "We have been demanding transparent elections at every cost. We hope that will happen."

Faheen's group is a member of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, a group of 16 political parties that have been pushing for democratic elections since the 1999 coup.

The alliance's president, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, offered a very dim view of the political situation in Pakistan. He predicted the election will be held next year, partly because of the unprecedented attention Pakistan is receiving from the world's media.

He described that vote, however, as "meaningless."

The elections will be characterized by "vote rigging on a very large scale," he said, because the government has not agreed to establishing an independent election commission.

And in the end, Musharraf will not surrender his military role as chief of staff of the army and thus will continue to wield tremendous power. Many observers predict he will lead a "guided democracy" for a number of years before Pakistan develops a full democracy.

The military has always played a large role in Pakistan's leadership, never allowing democracy to take root for very long. Since the founding of Pakistan 54 years ago, military governments have ruled for 26 of them.

The power of the military in Pakistan can be seen in Musharraf's dress. Although he holds the title of president, Musharraf nearly always presents himself in his military capacity, dressed in a freshly pressed khaki uniform glimmering with medals.

His reign has been marked by tight controls for political opponents, who have been detained without charge, treated poorly while in custody and even tortured, according to Human Rights Watch.

In recent weeks Musharraf has detained dozens of members of the militant Islamic political groups that have organized extensive demonstrations in the country's major cities.

And Khan partly blames the United States and other Western democracies for the crackdown on political groups. They allow him to get away with it, Khan says.

"The Western countries always claim they want democratic process restored. But when the situation arises like this, they always side with the dictators," he said. "After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, they left us in the lurch. No one cared about the restoration of democracy in Pakistan."

The United States and Britain, however, have stressed the importance of Pakistan's return to democracy next year. Both were severe critics of Musharraf's coup.

The United States slapped harsh economic sanctions on Pakistan, which were recently lifted because of Musharraf's cooperation in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

At home, Musharraf did receive widespread support from many Pakistanis who viewed the ousted government of Nawaz Sharif as hopelessly corrupt and the economy mismanaged. And many Pakistanis who might not care for Musharraf apparently believe he is sincere in his desire to change the country for the better.

"Everybody believes he is going to hold the elections on the stipulated date," said Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.

In fact, Cheema said that Musharraf would have held the elections sooner if not for the need to update voter rolls and make other preparations to hold elections.

Najam Sethi, editor of the independent weekly newspaper, The Friday Times, said Musharraf really has no choice but to stick to his "road map" for the return to democracy.

"He needs democracy now more than ever before," he said. "Musharraf needs to draw the moderate politicians in to support him. In a sense he needs to create a political armor against the Islamic extremists."

If Musharraf does not allow democratic elections, the moderate political parties would not offer him any support and there would be a political vacuum in which the vocal and well-organized Islamic parities could perhaps gain more control, Sethi said, creating more tension at home.

If the people choose their own leaders, he said, it would be very difficult for extreme elements to take power.

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