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Passing the Baton to Democracy?

Passing the Baton to Democracy?

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Will Pervez Musharraf make history? Or will his latest moves merely mark a repetition of history? That is the all-important question before the 160 million people of Pakistan.

Glittering in a green sash and a brilliant row of medals and ribbons, General Musharraf, of course, claimed to be making history on November 28 when he handed over the army chief's baton to protege Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani at an impressive function. He affected a history-maker's halo once again the next day when he was sworn in as a civilian president in an elegant sherwani that bore no semblance at all to the "second skin" he was shedding.

On both occasions, he paid handsome tributes to his successor in the army, whom he had known "for more than 20 years." As he inspected the farewell parade and addressed the gathering of luminaries, including his own family members, however, did Musharraf remember what had happened nine eventful years ago?

In 1998, following the resignation of his predecessor General Jehangir Karamat, former prime minister and his present foe Nawaz Sharif personally promoted Musharraf over other senior officers as an "obedient and loyal officer" to be chief of army staff (COAS). Sharif considered Musharraf, known to be pro-West, as safe as the latter is reported to regard Kiyani with his reputation for professionalism as much as for chain-smoking and love of golf.

Sharif was not the first prime minister of Pakistan to make such a mistake. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of his arch-rival Benazir Bhutto, made a similarly suicidal move when he appointed General Zia ul-Haq the COAS in April 1976, similarly ahead of a number of more senior officers.

Soon after the appointment, the shah of Iran visited Pakistan, and Bhutto reportedly introduced Zia to him in the following words: "Meet my new Army Chief. He is totally loyal to me. If I ask him to stand, he will stand. If I ask him to sit, he will sit. If I ask him to salute, he will salute. With him as the chief, the Army is in safe hands." Not long after that, Zia was to send Bhutto to the gallows and take power as a military dictator.

Earlier, previous military ruler General Ayub Khan, faced with domestic discontent, had handed over power to General Yahya Khan ahead of seven more senior generals in March 1969. Yahya proceeded immediately to impose martial law on Pakistan.

General Ayub Khan himself had been promoted out of turn to become COAS in January 1951, with then-civilian Pakistani leader Iskander Mirza choosing him for his "loyalty." Khan was soon to depose Mirza and deport him to London in a bloodless coup, to assume the unbridled powers of a military ruler.

Little wonder that there is a lot of speculation already about how long the present Musharraf dispensation will last. Quite a few observers in Pakistan do not rule out the possibility of Kiyani acting at some point of time on behalf of "patriotic armed forces," as others have done before him. The likelihood is considered all the greater for Kiyani's well-known connections as a former chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Thus, the Musharraf moves, supposed to mark a civilian-military transition, may lead to yet another civilian-military tussle. Any confrontation between Musharraf and Kiyani, however, will not mean one between democracy and military dictatorship.

President Musharraf, of course, has been at pains to project his change of costume as an answer to the challenge of democracy. By doffing his uniform at the right time, he claims, he has saved "the third stage" of the country's democratic process from "derailment" (the first stage being the immediately post-Sharif phase and the second the period after what everyone else saw as rigged elections to provincial assemblies.

To the majority of Pakistanis, what Musharraf has put back on the tracks would appear to be a train to a destination very different from any known form of democracy. There are two major reasons why the president's much-vaunted "roadmap" to democracy does not make even remote sense to many.

The first reason lies in utter uncertainty not only about the elections but in where they will lead. Even if all the major political parties are persuaded to participate in the polls, the people will still not know what they are voting for. Both Bhutto and Sharif have sworn that they won't hold political office under Musharraf, whom they consider a president without constitutional authority. If the ex-prime ministers stick to their stand, the elections will lead only to an extension of the country's political crisis.

The second and the more serious limitation of the president-ordained democratic process lies in the remote control to which the "roadmap" has been subjected. It took a clear directive from Washington for the general to hang up his uniform. And a warning from the White house was needed to make Musharraf announce an end to martial law which he had earlier insisted upon as a mandatory condition for the conduct of "free and fair" elections.

To bemused Pakistani voters, a dispensation where pressure from the people prevails may better appear to deserve description as a democracy.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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