The second wave —Tanvir Ahmad Khan

Pakistan’s present crisis has dragged on for too long and it is time for a closure on the two major issues that vitiate every aspect of our body politic and the national economy. Beyond any doubt, the two issues are relations between the presidency and the elected government and the restoration of judges

There is a whole library of studies of why and how authoritarian regimes unravel and give way to democratic governments of various hues. We know from the orange, rose and tulip revolutions in some of the successor states of the erstwhile Soviet Union that the turning wheel does not always bring about full democracy and that the struggle for participatory association of the people with institutions of the state continues albeit in an altered form. In analysing the fate of autocratic regimes and the emergence of a democratic order, scholars work out paradigms and models that reinforce the view that state structures are invariably more sustainable when based on the widest possible assent of the people.

Pakistan is a particularly pertinent case study of constitutional instability caused by an almost perennial tension between entrenched forces that impose authoritarian governance on it and a resolute people irrevocably wedded to electoral choice. Since the mid-1990s this rather simple equation has been complicated by the rise of militant groups that have no faith in traditional politics and that feel increasingly emboldened to defy the authority of the state in the name of religion, ethnicity and economic disparities. A further dimension has been added to the complex situation in Pakistan by rulers who anchor their legitimacy in external support rather than their own people and end up trading off Pakistan’s foreign and security policies for it.

We are currently witnessing a second wave by which an already weakened autocratic regime is sought to be swept away after a period in which some democratic forces tentatively explored the possibility of working out a modus vivendi with it. That these forces even considered an accommodation with a regime that had relentlessly violated democratic norms for almost a decade and that, disappointed as they are, they are now unleashing what I have called a second wave underlines certain specific aspects of the Pakistani situation distinguishing it from many other democratic transitions of recent history. It may be salutary to cast a retrospective glance on these defining aspects.

First and foremost the autocratic regime that may be decisively challenged now started collapsing because of its inherent weakness well before the opposition had gathered a critical mass. Even when it was much feared, it had few attributes of sustainable autocracies. It was born in the midst of considerable domestic opposition and near universal international rejection. The strategies by which it tried to overcome these disabilities were flawed from the beginning and offered only a limited shelf life.

The external dimension relied almost exclusively on committing the Pakistani armed forces to a war that the nation never understood and never fully supported. The regime had no leverage on the duration and the nature of the conflict. It seems that it was also never in a hurry to wrap it up because it was its main external source of political and economic strength. Ironically, the longer the conflict lasted, the more glaring were the weaknesses of the regime. It flowed freely into Pakistan’s tribal belt and beyond , alienating the people further. Equally debilitating for the regime were the allegations from the United States and NATO that it lacked the will or the capability to defeat the insurgents.

On the domestic front, having secured what it thought was open-ended international support, the regime put together what the present ruling coalition has just reminded us was a servile “King’s Party”. After a short-lived experiment with a recognisable political figure, the regime appointed a prime minister who eludes any satisfactory definition to this day. The arrangement had a beguiling simplicity: General Musharraf would direct the terrorism war and Shaukat Aziz would transform the economy.

Instead of living happily forever after performing this fiat of political engineering the regime became a victim of a fatal dynamic: the army had its share of misfortunes and the illusion of an economic miracle floundered on the hard rock of unprecedented hardship for a rapidly expanding majority.

After grossly under-estimating the indispensable importance of the late Benazir Bhutto and the enduring salience of mainstream political parties for many long years, the international supporters of the Pakistani regime eventually threw their weight behind a controlled restoration of democracy. Tragically, it was a limited effort compromised by the desire to keep General Musharraf in the driving seat as well as by an astonishing failure to read the dynamic parameter of time.

As time got compressed, General Musharraf made a series of irredeemable mistakes. There was deep disquiet in the country but no revolutionary edge to it. The advantage he had in the lead time required by the mainstream political parties to mobilise their supporters after years of harassment was lost when he declared history’s greatest war against the higher judiciary.

The determined resistance offered by the legal fraternity had a multiplier effect on what social scientists would call the diffusion factor. Robustly backed by a hugely expanded media world, this phenomenon became an avalanche of hostile ideas, concepts and tactics that shook the regime to its roots. It lost its last chance by playing gratuitous political games with Benazir Bhutto. Its failure to protect her life knocked the bottom off the project she was putting together under the rubric of “reconciliation” and plunged Pakistan into a grave crisis. The result was the debacle that the regime suffered on February 18.

Much has been said about the undercurrents that made the coalition led by the PPP and PMLN fragile. There is no gainsaying that that they caused a deficit of governance that was beginning to get exploited by forces that have never trusted democratically elected governments. Pakistan’s present crisis has dragged on for too long and it is time for a closure on the two major issues that vitiate every aspect of our body politic and the national economy. Beyond any doubt, the two issues are relations between the presidency and the elected government and the restoration of judges. When it is decision time nations cannot run away from their historic responsibility. Pakistan does not have many choices, either.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. He can be contacted at tanvir.a.khan@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times, 11/8/2008

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