Abuse of power taints Musharraf's change of heart

September 17, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made a conscious decision to be in the United States this Sept. 11. His purpose was to show solidarity with America, and perhaps to induce a bit of amnesia. Last year's attacks, remember, were spawned by terrorists harbored by Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which was recognized by only three countries - one being Pakistan.

Mr. Musharraf, a career officer in an army that had extensive ties to the Taliban, made a dramatic about-face after Sept. 11. That happened because the Bush administration forcefully demanded his support and help in the American war against al-Qaida and its sponsors. As one Pakistani commentator remarked, "Pakistan had to choose between going along with America or becoming another Iraq."

He was not the only one to undergo a sudden change of heart. Back in the 1980s, when the United States and Pakistan had a common interest in helping Afghans fight the Soviet occupation, the two were best buddies. After the Soviets left, affections cooled in Washington, which went so far as to impose economic sanctions to protest Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. Mr. Musharraf's 1999 coup further antagonized the U.S. government.

All was forgiven, though, when he enlisted on our side in the new war in Afghanistan.

On a visit to Chicago last Tuesday, Mr. Musharraf said his main goal is to lay the foundation for "real, sustainable democracy." Part of that process, in his view, is the election of a new parliament next month. Real power, he insisted, will lie not with him but with elected leaders.

That will come as news to Pakistanis, who saw the dictator promulgate a new constitution in 2000 - and then dismiss six of 13 Supreme Court justices who refused to take an oath to uphold it. Last spring, he won a five-year term in an election that was missing one thing: an opponent. Recently, acting all by his lonesome self, Mr. Musharraf attached 29 amendments to the constitution. Among these was one giving him the right to dissolve parliament anytime it does something to displease him.

But he says his role has been exaggerated. What matters, he declared, "is the authority to govern and legislate. Let me tell you, that authority will remain with the elected prime minister and parliament." The executive, in this system, is just "checking" the power of the national assembly. "We need checks on everyone," he declared.

In this case, elected legislators will be checked by someone who gained power through the barrel of a gun. The president checks the parliament, but no one checks him. When asked in August how the package of amendments became part of the constitution, he said, "I am making it part of the constitution."

Confronted with demands for a return to democracy, Mr. Musharraf would be justified in replying: What has democracy ever done for Pakistan? The elected leaders who have been periodically evicted from power by the army were mostly dishonest, self-seeking, incompetent and not terribly respectful of human rights. When Mr. Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, most Pakistanis seemed to welcome the change.

Mr. Musharraf's denunciation of corruption, which was widely blamed for the nation's economic misery, struck a chord with people weary of being governed by pirates. He's happy to note that Pakistan has improved in that respect. Two years ago, he said with a knowing smile, "we were ranked second from the bottom for the most corrupt nation in the world. Now we're 23rd from the bottom."

His promise to move quickly to end military rule has not fared so well. Mr. Musharraf said in 2000 that he would hand over power to an elected government within three years. The parliamentary elections are supposed to fulfill that pledge, but the only power the assembly will have is the power to get itself closed down if it dares to challenge his policies. Pakistan will have a parliament, just as England has a queen, but anyone looking for the person who runs the country will look elsewhere.

People in Pakistan and abroad hoped that Mr. Musharraf would use his opportunity to establish conditions under which authentic democracy might take root.

In fact, his main achievement has been to expand and institutionalize an autocracy, which will be harder to dismantle than it was to create.

Maybe Mr. Musharraf has made progress against Pakistan's culture of corruption. But he's also proof that nothing corrupts like too much power.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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