Rasul Bakhsh Rais
What would define chaos better than a swift reconstitution of the judiciary, imposition of Emergency rule and holding the Constitution in abeyance? This institutional chaos has pushed the elections as an issue to the margins of political debate. Why would anyone consider elections under the conditions described above as sincere, credible, free and fair?
After eight years of Musharraf- centred politics, we see some signs of change in the politics of Pakistan. The first major change that will redefine politics issues, alignments and the political process in the coming weeks and months is the announcement that General Musharraf is going to take off his military uniform on November 29 and get himself sworn in as a civilian president. Many a times before, pledges, declarations and commitments were not honoured. Therefore, there should be a bit of caution while accepting that the final episode of General Musharraf's career is about to begin.
The moment it happens, the dynamics of Pakistani politics will greatly change, and that will be a very positive development for the country. It would mark the beginning of a major political transition. The indications of such a transition are apparent: Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, two leaders the General despised the most and kept out of the country for nearly a decade, have returned.
What made General Musharraf and the ruling clique rethink their position on the leaders of the two major political parties? Not a sudden change of heart about democracy and constitutional rule, but a sudden loss of moral authority, because otherwise, Musharraf was and is Chief of the Army Staff and the 'elected president' who has the support of three major political groups that were ready to follow his political direction.
The General has come to realise that between March 9 and November 3, he placed his own ambitions above Pakistan, its vital institutions and norms of governance. While this inversion of priorities was apparent to even the dullest of political minds, the General was adamant that all his thoughts and actions were guided only by considerations for Pakistan's security, stability and prosperity.
The people of Pakistan accepted him without questioning the legitimacy of his military takeover and all institutions, including the Supreme Court of Pakistan, extended him whatever support he needed to fulfil his pledge of guiding Pakistan to genuine democracy and improving the economy. Contrary to popular expectations, his politics was based on the familiar thought that politicians can be bought for a bargain. Musharraf's every political move, including allying with some of the most corrupt politicians in the country and rigging elections, proved beyond any doubt that he did not represent the forces of social and political change but was quite comfortable with the herd as long as he was the shepherd.
In Pakistan's cyclical history, there is a strange pattern where every military ruler undermines his position by committing blunder upon blunder even before the opposition forces do anything to him. Mr Sharif's return to Pakistan, despite regular threats that he would not be allowed into the country before completing the term of his exile and last ditch efforts by the regime to stop him, tells a great deal about how much the Musharraf's government has weakened. Emergency rule is the only armour protecting his dangerously exposed political flanks. But even that has hardly served its purpose. Everything that Musharraf has attempted since March 9 has backfired badly.
Pakistan is in serious trouble today with a lot of uncertain, unstable and even chaotic situations. What would define chaos better than a swift reconstitution of the judiciary, imposition of Emergency rule and holding the Constitution in abeyance? This institutional chaos has pushed the elections as an issue to the margins of political debate. Why would anyone consider elections under the conditions described above as sincere, credible, free and fair?
There is now an increased possibility of more political parties boycotting the elections with the return of Sharif, who considers Musharraf to be the mother and father of all of Pakistan's problems. He has presented a charter of demands that will be difficult for the Musharraf government to accept, including the General's removal from power. If Sharif decides to stay out of the elections, even if Bhutto participates, the polls will have no integrity at all.
Also, the return of the two old political rivals is not a precursor of a major change in the politics of Pakistan, other than perhaps ousting Musharraf, and even that has serious question marks attached to it. While there are ample reasons for the lack of trust and confidence in mainstream political parties whose leaders have little regard for democracy within their own parties, in the objective conditions of the country, they can be the only medium of political transition in the traditional sense of politics. It is not clear whether their ascendancy in the post-Musharraf era will be the beginning of a major political transition in the structural sense. It could be more of the same old wine in new bottles.
The real indications of change and hope are in the new social movement of the students, media, lawyers and intelligentsia. It is not about conventional politics and leaders with their ambitions and deals. It is about the basics of Pakistani politics and society that need to be defined in the vastly changed national and global climate. There is a realisation that simply changing political horses who have been tried before will not help Pakistani society modernise and progress. Structural change with respect to the independence of judiciary, constitutionalism, rule of law and fundamental freedoms including, most importantly, the media, will gradually move society in that direction.
The sentiment and capacity of the new social forces, and their willingness to accept suffering for the cause of true democracy and civility in politics is as mesmerising as its courage and youthfulness. Musharraf, despite a good start, lost moral power and influence because he failed to go with the forces of change and elected to rely on politicians of questionable integrity. The fate of two other leaders, each tried twice in the past, may be no different if they don't embrace the ideal of the new social movement, which wants real change and is willing to fight for as long as it takes. This is the true sign of hope.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com