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With a popularity low minimum, Musharraf faces presidential, legislative and regional elections, scheduled for autumn. If abroad the general has the backing of the United States, in the interior an increasingly powerful opposition demands change.
The kidnapping of hundreds of people in the Islamabad Red Mosque by Islamists and the subsequent assault by the Pakistani army on July 10, as well as the protests after the dismissal in March of the Supreme Court president, Iftikhar Chaudry, restored in his functions by the court itself on July 20, mark a new stage for the government of President Pervez Musharraf. The dictator had enjoyed almost absolute control of the Pakistani political scene since he took charge of a coup in 1999. His grave miscalculation in suspending Chaudry, unconstitutionally, unleashed a wave of demonstrations throughout the country led by magistrates. The opposition did not take long to get on the bandwagon of increasingly violent mobilizations,
Much of the effervescence of recent months in Pakistan is related to the fact that this fall a decisive election process is opening: three elections, two direct -legislative and regional- and one indirect -presidential-. The result will decisively mark the near future of the country.
At this point, different scenarios are drawn on the horizon. In any case, whatever the result may be, it seems clear that a new political stage will be opened. Given Pakistan’s geostrategic position in the so-called “war on terror”, and its status as a nuclear power, there is no doubt that the international community will pay close attention to the country’s events during the coming months.
The coup d’état of 1999 was carried out by Musharraf and several high ranking officers close to the general. The main disagreement between the democratic government of Nawaf Sharif and the military establishment – historically the most powerful institution in the country – was the dismissal of Musharraf as supreme army chief while he was traveling in Sri Lanka. A group of military personnel, including generals in key positions, did not accept the executive’s decision and, after taking several strategic centers, offered Musharraf control of the government. The Constitution was suspended and the previous administration dismissed. After remaining under house arrest for several months, Sharif was able to leave the country and went into exile in Saudi Arabia. In June 2001, Musharraf proclaimed himself president of the country,
It was not the first time in Pakistan’s history that a weak democratic government, stalked by various corruption scandals, was peacefully deposed by the army amid the indifference – if not explicit approval – of a large part of the citizenry. Previously, on three occasions the army had made a similar movement. Since the creation of the Pakistani state, the democratic periods and military dictatorship have alternated regularly, so that if we add the years that have governed each of the two systems, both democracy and the dictatorship accumulate approximately 30 years. But also, even during the democratic periods, the army has had a great political influence because of the numerous armed conflicts in which the country has been immersed.
However, nearly a century of English colonial rule has left its mark on the political culture of the country, and the rule of law, at least in appearance, must be respected even by a military dictator like Musharraf. Thus, at the request of the Supreme Court in a May 2000 resolution, the general was forced to call a general election within two years. Months before the elections, Musharraf decided to convene a referendum in which the public had to pronounce on the extension during five years of his presidential mandate. The referendum was boycotted by most of the political parties that, like several international observers, denounced the existence of irregularities, partially recognized by Musharraf weeks later. Officially,
In October 2002 the legislative elections were held, in which the PML-Q (Muslim League of Pakistan), centrist party founded by Musharraf himself, won the victory in number of seats, but not votes. The PML-Q obtained a few thousand votes less than the 94 Foreign PolicyParty of the People of Pakistan (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, about 25 percent. This relative victory of Musharraf, also punctuated by accusations of fraud, did not allow him to approve the constitutional amendments necessary to give legal coverage to his takeover and, in turn, strengthen his powers as president. Among the measures that it sought to promote, it included the ability to unilaterally remove the national and regional governments, limit individual association rights, stand as a candidate for elections and create the National Security Council, a body dominated by the military. that would institutionalize his tutelage in politics.
After a year of impasse , at the end of 2003, Musharraf gathered the necessary majority to reform the Constitution thanks to a pact with the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal), a coalition that brings together the main Islamist parties. The so-called “Amendment 17” picks up most of Musharraf’s proposals. Among them, and to reinforce the questioned legitimacy of the general, a presidential investiture vote by the electoral college in a maximum period of one month. That vote took place in January 2004, and the general reaped 56 percent of affirmative votes.
In exchange for his support, Musharraf promised the MMA to leave his post in the army at the end of 2004, and granted the broad-based Islamist parties in their political activities, unlike what happens with the traditional opposition parties, the PPP. and Sharif’s PML-N. In fact, perhaps due to the political alienation of a good part of the population, which sees the parties as machineries in search of their own benefit, the degree of repression that the regime needs to sustain itself is not massive, but selective. It is a constant in the history of military dictatorships in Pakistan: they have never reached levels of repression that bring them closer to totalitarian regimes. On the other hand, it must be borne in mind that some civilian governments have not shown democratic sensitivity, since, for example,
The turn of 11-S
Apart from its problems of internal political legitimacy, the international and economic conjuncture was not favorable to Musharraf during the first years of his government. Following the nuclear tests of 1998, Pakistan suffered some international isolation. Washington had decreed a regime of economic sanctions that, added to the effects of the Asian crisis, notably damaged the battered economy of the country. Thus, it registered a stunted economic growth between 1998 and 1999. Due to a high public deficit and in the trade balance, it was feared that the country would fall into a serious monetary crisis.
The scenario changed radically after the 9/11 attacks. A window of opportunity opened before Musharraf, who did not hesitate to take advantage of it. This is how Pakistan broke its alliance with the Taliban and became one of the vital allies of the United States in the “war against terrorism” of George W. Bush. The economic sanctions were immediately canceled, and the country began receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. It is estimated that since 2001 the United States has donated 10 billion dollars to Pakistan, most of them in military aid, and several thousand more in soft loans. The country has thus become the second recipient of US aid. European countries and Japan, meanwhile, have condoned several billion more of Pakistan’s foreign debt.
This injection of dollars has had a clearly positive effect on the country’s economy, which in recent years has grown at a rate of between six and eight percent. At the same time as the public deficit was reduced, social spending increased, responsible for the reduction of poverty by 10 percent since 2001, according to official data. At this time, inflation (approximately eight percent) is the main concern of the authorities.
Despite a marked improvement in most economic indicators, there are many analysts who doubt the ability of the government to sustain the long-term economic boom. The macroeconomic reforms carried out by Musharraf – in particular, the privatization of the banking sector – are considered insufficient and growth is attributed, above all, to Washington’s generosity. The traditional hindrances of the Pakistani economy have not been overcome. It is estimated that, on average, during the last decades, 85 percent of the national budget has been used to finance the astronomical expenses of the Ministry of Defense, the service of the external debt and the salaries of civil servants.
We must bear in mind that the army plays a fundamental role in the economy of the country, since it has hundreds of companies, both public and private, manages universities, as well as various commercial activities, not always efficiently. Some estimates put the value in the portfolio of the companies controlled by the army at around 20,000 million euros. The misgivings aroused by this omnipresence of the military establishment in all sectors of society explain the increasing discontent of a part of society with respect to the military dictatorship.
The rebound of the economy was an oxygen ball for Musharraf, who began using a discourse based on progress and stability to shore up his questioned legitimacy. The years that followed 9/11 were the best for the general, whose popularity increased among the middle classes. On the other hand, the traditional parties weakened, partly due to the government’s obstacles to develop their activities normally. The two main leaders of the opposition, Bhutto and Sharif, are in exile, and risk being imprisoned if they return to the country due to various processes opened for corruption. Both deny the veracity of these accusations and attribute them to political maneuvers of the army.
The strategic turn of Musharraf after 9/11 also had its costs. After a brief “honeymoon” with political Islamism, the fulfillment of Washington’s demands has collided with the interests of the Islamists, which has led to a breakdown of the alliance created at the end of 2003. The internal fracture has also been due to Musharraf’s failure to promise to resign his position as supreme head of the armed forces at the end of 2004. Today, the MMA has joined the platform that groups the rest of the opposition, and has taken an active role in the mobilizations against Musharraf.
The Islamist danger
The images of thousands of angry bearded men shouting anti-American slogans on the streets of Karachi have helped create a myth in the West about the imminent danger of a collapse of the current regime in Pakistan and its replacement by an Islamic theocracy. This would repeat, almost 30 years later, the history of the Iranian revolution. Although it is not a totally unlikely scenario, especially in the long term, the probabilities that have become reality have been exaggerated.
Traditionally, electoral support for Islamist parties has been marginal, around five percent. However, in the legislative elections of 2002 the Islamists obtained the best result of their history: 11 percent of the votes and 53 deputies. In addition, that same year, the MMA coalition won regional elections in the provinces of Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier, and since then has exercised its rule. Despite representing more than half of the Pakistani territory, these two provinces account for less than 20 percent of the population, which explains the remarkable percentage difference between the national and regional results of the Islamists.
Two reasons explain fundamentally the growth of political Islamism in the last elections. The first is the support they received from the regime to counteract the traditional parties and divide the opposition. The second is the discomfort generated by support for the United States in the war in Afghanistan, especially in areas inhabited by Pashtuns. This is the case of the province of Frontera del Noroeste and part of Baluchistan. There are strong ties between the Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, hence the support for the Taliban. Despite some ideological discrepancies, the MMA has always supported the Taliban, which allowed it to electorally capitalize on the wrath of the Pashtuns and the more conservative sectors of Pakistani society.
So, contrary to what it may seem, the popular support of political Islamism in Pakistan is less than in most countries in the Middle East. However, it is true that their influence tends to grow throughout the country and, although numerically minority, the Islamists have an active and aware militancy, able to take thousands of people to the streets and mark the political agenda. Some of its growth is due to the construction of a powerful network of madrassas or Koranic schools, of conservative ideology during the last decades. These schools offer free education and housing, which is why they are popular among disadvantaged classes, and especially among Afghan refugees. It was in these madrasahs where the Taliban were born and where the jihadist groups, As Al Qaeda or Jaish-Muhammad, they recruit volunteers to fight in Afghanistan or Kashmir. For this reason, the government has placed the education system at the center of its priorities in the fight against extremism. In addition to trying to exercise greater control over school curricula, both public and private schools, the government is trying to incorporate the madrasas into the public system, so that they can supervise them.
Beyond popular support for political Islamism, the most apocalyptic forecasts are based on a supposed massive infiltration of extremist groups at various levels of the administration, and especially in the army and the all-powerful ISI (secret service). While it is true that they have sympathizers in the state apparatus, their influence has been exaggerated. Relations between the ISI and radical Islamist groups have a long history. It was this agency that was in charge of supplying arms and funds from other countries to the Afghan mujahideen during the war against the Soviet occupation. Subsequently, the ISI supported the seizure of power by the Taliban, considered more respectful of Pakistani national interests. Likewise, through the ISI Pakistan has until recently supported extremist groups operating in the Indian part of Kashmir, as a strategy of pressure on India. However, the logic behind these policies was never ideological, but the defense of national interests. And while it is true that this long history may have created personal ties and sympathies that have survived the strategic shift that Musharraf printed after 9/11, they are no stronger than patriotic ideals, especially at the top of the organization, purged by the government on several occasions. The army is perhaps the institution in which the Anglo-Saxon culture penetrated more, so that the values of professionalism and national patriotism are rooted. However, the logic behind these policies was never ideological, but the defense of national interests. And while it is true that this long history may have created personal ties and sympathies that have survived the strategic shift that Musharraf printed after 9/11, they are no stronger than patriotic ideals, especially at the top of the organization, purged by the government on several occasions. The army is perhaps the institution in which the Anglo-Saxon culture penetrated more, so that the values of professionalism and national patriotism are rooted. However, the logic behind these policies was never ideological, but the defense of national interests. And while it is true that this long history may have created personal ties and sympathies that have survived the strategic shift that Musharraf printed after 9/11, they are no stronger than patriotic ideals, especially at the top of the organization, purged by the government on several occasions. The army is perhaps the institution in which the Anglo-Saxon culture penetrated more, so that the values of professionalism and national patriotism are rooted. And while it is true that this long history may have created personal ties and sympathies that have survived the strategic shift that Musharraf printed after 9/11, they are no stronger than patriotic ideals, especially at the top of the organization, purged by the government on several occasions. The army is perhaps the institution in which the Anglo-Saxon culture penetrated more, so that the values of professionalism and national patriotism are rooted. And while it is true that this long history may have created personal ties and sympathies that have survived the strategic shift that Musharraf printed after 9/11, they are no stronger than patriotic ideals, especially at the top of the organization, purged by the government on several occasions. The army is perhaps the institution in which the Anglo-Saxon culture penetrated more, so that the values of professionalism and national patriotism are rooted.
Islam has acted as an agglutinator of a State with a great diversity of peoples and languages
However, this does not mean that the army is a bulwark of secularism, as is the case in Turkey. Islam has played an important role in the formation of the State and the construction of national identity, which is why few sectors in Pakistani society defend a pure secularism. During the struggle for independence, Islam was a fundamental tool of popular mobilization, while behind it it has acted as a unifying force of a State with a great ethnic and linguistic plurality. This has not prevented that even today there is a struggle to define the soul of the country among those who, like Ali Jinnah, considered the founding father of Pakistan, believe that Islam should act as the moral base of the country, and those who defend the construction of an Islamic State.
Since 1973, Islam is defined in the Constitution as the religion of the State. However, already in the preamble of the first Constitution, and as a compromise formula, stipulated that sovereignty belonged to God and was exercised by the people. In practice, this has meant that Parliament, and not the ulemas, is the one who decides on the consistency of laws with sharia or Islamic law.
In short, Islam is and will remain a key factor in Pakistani politics and its institutional design will reflect the intensification of the process of Islamization of society. However, the possibility of the State falling into the hands of extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda is highly unlikely.
Possible future scenarios
The dismissal and subsequent restitution of Chaudry by the Supreme Court, as well as the kidnapping and assault on the Red Mosque, have created a state of turmoil in Pakistan that makes it difficult to predict before the elections. With the aim of curbing the growing mobilizations, Musharraf stopped several hundred workers of the traditional parties in June and approved new legislation that restricts the freedom of the media. In this tug-of-war, events can precipitate quickly and unexpectedly in different directions.
Despite the high degree of uncertainty, what can be defined are the three key issues that will mark the final outcome of the power game proposed among the various actors involved. In the first place, the eventual re-election of Musharraf as president by the current Parliament, in which the relationship of forces is favorable to the general. Since the legislative and presidential mandates end on the same day, on November 15, Musharraf wants the election of the new president by Parliament to be held before this date. Instead, the opposition maintains the opposite. The Supreme Court must rule on this. As it should also do on the legality of Musharraf hold his two positions, the president and the supreme head of the army. It is not clear if “Amendment 17” gave legal coverage to Musharraf during the present mandate or indefinitely. This is a key issue because, given its low level of popularity at present, Musharraf can only stay in power if he continues as head of the armed forces, and they sustain him. While the Supreme Court has a history of servility towards military power, in the present context of popular turmoil, no verdict can be ruled out.
Secondly, the holding of free elections, or their manipulation. The Constitution provides for the possibility of establishing a provisional government to protect the electoral process. Although Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has announced the invitation of international observers and the government’s willingness to ensure greater transparency, NGOs and opposition parties fear a new fraud. For example, the two main opposition parties estimate that some 30 million people have not been included in the electoral roll, which is why they have filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court.
Third, the return of Bhutto and Sharif, former prime ministers and opposition leaders. According to Musharraf’s statements, if they put their feet back in Pakistan they will be arrested because of their controversial corruption prosecution. However, during the last months, Bhutto and Musharraf have maintained various contacts in order to find a political solution for the country and for the personal situation of the former prime minister. Some rumors pointed to an agreement to share power, so that Bhutto would be the prime minister again and Musharraf would maintain the presidency. Now, after the incidents of March, the relations seem broken, and Bhutto has already announced that he plans to return before the elections, regardless of the consequences.
The negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto have had the effect of muddying relations between the two main opposition parties, the PPP and the Muslim League, which led the creation of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, composed of almost twenty parties of the opposition, including the MMA Islamists. Part of Pakistan’s political future will depend on the capacity for cooperation within this coalition, or on Musharraf’s ability to divide and co-opt one of its members.
Until now, Bush has been the main defender of Musharraf inside and outside of Pakistan
The more he tried to silence the voices of the opposition, the more his popularity decreased. He persisted in his quest for power, the most he achieved was to become an unpopular and weak president, incapable of satisfying the demands of his foreign allies, and of Pakistani society. And, given the challenges it faces, Pakistan needs strong legitimate leadership.
A difficult stability
Whatever happens, no radical change of direction is foreseen in regard to the key policies for national security in the country: the fight against Al Qaeda and the search for a peaceful resolution of the conflict with India. There is a majority consensus among the population with regard to these policies, whether Musharraf remains in power or is assumed by a civilian government.
Pakistan is often accused, both by the Afghan government and by some North American analysts, of not doing enough to neutralize the activities of the Taliban on Pakistani soil. Some even accuse the army of promoting the resurgence of the Taliban in recent months. Although it is true that Musharraf’s relations with the government of Hamid Karzai are not good, because of his sympathies towards India, the presence of the State in the so-called tribal areas (area bordering Afghanistan with a different legal regime than the rest of the country). country) is weak, and given its mountainous terrain, it is a difficult territory to control. A subjection of the area to blood and fire, besides supposing a high cost in human lives, could provoke a civil war. So, It is not to be expected that this reality will change with a civil government. On the other hand, the democratization of the country could serve to stop the rise of extremist Islamism among the population as a whole, because it is thanks to the void left by the traditional political parties, which increases the popularity of the MMA and the Pakistani jihadist factions like Jaish – Muhammad.
The international community should press Musharraf to hold free elections and agree to carry out a democratic transition. This does not mean that the general can not continue to occupy a position of responsibility, but must leave his position as president and / or head of the armed forces. The best news for the country would be that this transition was made in a agreed way between the opposition and the military establishment.
However, no one should be fooled about the difficulty of providing Pakistan with political stability after more than 60 years of failures. Corruption is rooted in the main institutions, including political parties that have often demonstrated a lack of democratic sensitivity. In addition, given its ethnic and cultural plurality, there is a notable political fragmentation that will hinder the constitution of stable governments. Its geographical situation guarantees it to be in the crosshairs of Al Qaeda and other fanatical groups, which will be an additional obstacle in the search for stability. However, given the growing erosion of military power, it is necessary for the country to begin to move forward on the path of democratization. Nobody ever said that the implementation of a democratic system was a path of roses.