No graceful exit

Published September 22, 2007

DEMOCRACY is a bit like virginity: either you have it, or you don’t. There is no such thing as ‘guided democracy’, ‘basic democracy’ or, indeed, ‘a transition to democracy’.

Dictatorship, on the other hand, can have many gradations, depending on the whim of the dictator. And herein lies the fundamental difference: in a democracy, power resides with the people, and is exercised by their representatives who are elected through free and fair elections. In a dictatorship, power lies with an individual, or with a tightly knit cabal.

Of course there’s no such thing as a perfect democracy. But with all its flaws and foibles, it’s still the best system around. And yes, there are many restrictions a democracy places on its citizens: witness the erosion in personal freedoms that has taken place in the West in the aftermath of 9/11. However, there is a broad consensus around these new laws, and when the majority gets fed up of them, they can be changed.

Currently, what we have in Pakistan is a relatively benign dictatorship, together with all the paraphernalia of parliamentary democracy. But despite the presence of assemblies, a cabinet and a prime minister, power resides with General Pervez Musharraf. And if you forget this central fact, there are many ways of reminding you, including making you ‘disappear’.

What has changed is the unexpected emergence of the Supreme Court as a check to absolutism. This has altered the power balance in the country, and may leave Musharraf with no option but to declare martial law in case the Supreme Court blocks his bid for re-election.

Then the gloves will be off, and the true nature of the regime will be exposed to the world.

Musharraf’s supporters point to the phenomenal growth of the electronic media, and the considerable press freedom available now as evidence of his liberal credentials. But Pakistan remains a dangerous place for journalists.

This week, a reporter from the Dawn TV news channel was kidnapped for two days by plainclothesmen, and interrogated before being dumped from a car in the middle of nowhere. He was lucky: at least he was not beaten up, as others have been.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, a hundred journalists have been attacked or threatened last year, while four were killed.

So as we go through the convoluted arguments in the Supreme Court about the legality or otherwise of General Musharraf retaining his army uniform while he serves as president, we should remember that what is happening is a travesty of democracy. The mere notion that an army chief can serve as president is a negation of democracy.

Although Musharraf’s popularity, such as it was, has dwindled sharply, he still has supporters who would like him to stay as long as possible. They are among those who have made lots of money since 9/11, surely a red-letter day in Pakistan’s financial history. As the sharp rise in the stock market index showed on Nawaz Sharif’s swift departure from the scene, the rich are happy with the status quo.

But what’s good for the wealthy is not necessarily good for the country. As the jockeying to give Musharraf another five years continues, anybody condemned to live in Karachi can see why he must go.

Other parts of the country have fared just as badly under him. The recent collapse of a new bridge constructed by a military organisation in Karachi underlines all that is wrong in Pakistan today: poor policies, shoddily executed, with dishonest intentions.

The other day, Musharraf stated that he wanted another term to make sure that “his efforts were not wasted”.

Considering that nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line on less than a dollar a day; terrorist attacks have never before taken such a deadly toll; and the whole world views us as the epicentre of Islamic terrorism, this is not a record he should boast about.

We have been informed by the Election Commission that the farce of his re-election is to be enacted on October 6. Although the Constitution does not specifically state otherwise, surely a parliament elected for five years should not be re-electing a man for a further five years, after having given him a full term in 2002.

In case the Supreme Court does not strike down this grotesque bid, what we will be left with is hardly the ‘transition to democracy’ being pushed by Washington, and so avidly pursued by Benazir Bhutto. It should be obvious to the meanest intelligence that there is no legal, constitutional or ethical grounds for Musharraf to stay and pretend he is heading a democratic set-up.

In her dealings with Musharraf, Ms Bhutto has forgotten that power is never handed over willingly; it has to be seized.

This is true in states where an institutional framework has not evolved to make the peaceful transfer of power possible. With brief democratic interludes disrupted by long military interventions, Pakistan has not been able to grow into a democracy where power rests with the people.

Seen from abroad, the unprincipled wheeling and dealing that passes for politics in Pakistan is the object of bewilderment and scarcely concealed contempt. More and more, the label ‘failed state’ is being applied to our country. And all so that one man can hang on to his office(s).

It is not unusual for dictators to come to believe that they are not only indispensable, but invincible.

A coterie of sycophants reinforces this delusion, and these autocrats hang on to power as long as possible. By the time their expiry date is past, they are using all their limited creativity and political capital just to stay in power.

A couple of months ago, I had suggested in this space that the best thing Musharraf could do for himself and the country would be to announce his retirement from both posts. If he had organised free and fair elections, and then walked off into the sunset, he would have gone down in history as a statesman. Sadly for him and for us, his exit will now be a far messier event.

But then, generals don’t do graceful exits.

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