Will Musharraf strike again?

By Mohammad Waseem

IN 1999-2000 Gen Musharraf launched an institutional war against the legislature and judiciary, and also worked to decimate the executive. All the three wings of the state took an enormous beating at the hands of the fourth coup-maker in the history of Pakistan.

The judiciary again suffered a brutal attack in 2007, first in March and then more disastrously in November. The first violation of the constitution by Musharraf took place on Oct 12, 1999 when the elected government of Nawaz Sharif was dismissed. The second violation occurred on Nov 3, 2007 with the imposition of an emergency, which transcended all the relevant provisions in the constitution.

Is Musharraf now bracing for a second attack on the legislature? Is Pakistan moving back to the model of the late 1980s and the 1990s when the National Assembly, along with the provincial assemblies, was dissolved in 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1996?

We can outline four major features of the recurrent pattern of the use of Article 58-2(b) to dissolve the parliament. These features can be characterised as prerequisites for taking blatantly anti-democratic measures against the parliament by the extra-parliamentary forces led by the president.

First, the timing is crucial. A mass mandate provides legitimacy to the newly elected government. The president cannot, straight away, afford to act against the popular sentiment. He has to wait for months or even years for the right moment to strike. A reasonable period of time must pass before he can send the elected representatives back home. The temporal dimension of the process plays a pivotal role in this regard.

After the elections were held on Feb 18, and governments were formed a few weeks later, the legitimacy of the PPP-led coalition government was riding high. The elections brought into operation a message of change. The national mood was expressly against Musharraf. The legitimacy rooted in the mass mandate drew heavily on three factors: the restoration of judges, the economic crunch in the last phase of the Musharraf-Shaukat Aziz rule, and Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

The judges issue remains unresolved. The government has visibly distanced itself from it. The economic meltdown has continued unabated. The apocalypse is here. The Benazir factor, as could have been expected, lost its grip over the public imagination after a while. Thus, the first condition for dissolving a parliament that is gradually losing legitimacy seems to be within reach of the president as he follows a wait-and-see policy. He seems to be in quest of the right moment.

The second condition for dissolution of parliament relates to deficit performance. President Musharraf will think twice before striking down a government which enjoys popularity for good performance. In other words, the performance deficit must first sink into the public mind. The scandalous rise in prices of various commodities and the acute shortages of food and electricity, which helped the ruling coalition garner support in the February elections in the first place, now alienate the public with a similar cost to the government.

Thirdly, a good strategy is to hit when and where it is least expected. The myopia of the ruling dispensation is a prerequisite for a strike. The government must feel secure, confident and sure of its popularity. Junejo did not imagine in his wildest dreams that he would be dismissed on May 29, 1988. Nor did Benazir when she called President Ishaq on August 6, 1990, expressing amazement about rumours relating to his impending action against her government.

The fourth condition for bringing the axe down on parliament is that the government should crack from within and thus create a profile of weakness vis-à-vis the mighty force of the establishment. Benazir Bhutto’s government could never recover from the deadly exit of the MQM from the ruling coalition in 1989 as a result of the latter’s secret deal with the president.

As always, the establishment comprising extra-parliamentary forces would like to drive a wedge between the coalition partners in the parliamentary government. The ruling coalition of the PPP and PML-N has already been showing cracks. The man in the street perceives his fate in terms of the dictum: divided they fall.

The ruling set-up in Islamabad has lost the support of millions of PML-N voters. The pro-Nawaz Sharif sections of the media and intelligentsia have moved away. Nationalist elements from Balochistan stand alienated in the absence of any meaningful development in terms of policy or patronage. Every passing day is making the Gilani government increasingly an easy prey for a trigger-happy president.

What will happen if the much-dreaded Article 58-2(b) finally comes into operation? It will be a black day for democracy in Pakistan. The balance between the civil and military wings of the state will be further upset. However, fifthly, there will be no constitutional crisis. The ruling party has already agreed to keeping the controversial article in the statutes book, at least pending a comprehensive initiative to delete it. The president would then claim to be within his constitutional rights to strike again.

Sceptics might think that this scenario is too clean to be real. In the case of new elections, the PML-N as an alternative may not suit the president. The large-scale mobilisation by lawyers and civil society in general would be reactivated from its current position of recess. Washington would be shy of seeing Musharraf swim through the muddy waters of street agitation and public anger. Moving away from a situation of relative political order to one of uncertainty and potential disorder may not be an American priority.

But this underestimates the latent hostility of various elite sections of the population towards what they consider a bunch of uninitiated, unimaginative, uneducated and unsophisticated politicians. They see the failures of the government as failures of democracy itself. This smacks of a negative attitude towards societal input in the business of the state. If Musharraf strikes again, he will do so with the support of this unrepresentative and career-oriented elite which is imbued with a supremacist ideology rooted in paternalism.

Source: Daily Dawn, 2/8/2008

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