President Musharraf finally took off his uniform last week, handing over command of the armed forces to General Ashfaq Kiyani, a well-respected general in Western circles. The following day, he took the Presidential oath as a civilian president for the next five years. Though the emergency rule he imposed on 3 November remains intact, he promised to hold free and fair elections as a sign of his commitment to democracy.
This event raises two sets of questions: one, will this shift in power herald true democracy in Pakistan and mark an end to the nine-month long civil society resistance? And two, how will this shift impact Pakistan`s commitment to fighting the US "war on terror" within its own borders?
In order to answer these questions, it is first important to understand the limited nature of this power transfer. President Musharraf removed his uniform, but his ambition to control the government remains. For the time being, he is still the most important figure in the Pakistani government. As president, he controls the fate of the Parliament, retaining the right to dissolve the assembly. He handpicked the Election Commission and the interim government, while purging the Supreme Court of independent judges. How can any elections held under these circumstances be legitimate?
Musharraf`s presidency, despite the legal cover given by judges who took oath under emergency rule, lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the public as these judges themselves lack public trust due to their willingness to take the oath administrated by a military general after suspending the Constitution. The very demand at the heart of the current public resistance is the reinstatement of judges that did not take this oath and were thus released of their duties. It is these judges who have the trust of the public and around whom the struggle revolves.
Much depends on the actions that political parties in Pakistan will now take. Boycotting the elections is one strategy to exert pressure on the government to reinstate the judges, and a complete boycott will deprive the elections of any legitimacy. Opposition parties remain divided on this issue, with some worrying that the opposition cannot afford to leave the field uncontested, and others reluctant to give credibility to the elections if their demands are not met. This means continued lawyers` demonstrations, as the core issue of reinstating the removed judges remains unresolved.
The issue of militancy within Pakistan also remains unsettled with General Musharraf retaining the position of president. His government`s strategy of using force to deal with militancy has largely failed, with resistance against military operations within the tribal belts and suicide attacks on government targets in the mainland having steadily increased during his regime. Despite the strong aid flows from the United States, estimated to be above 11 billion dollars since 2001 with 100 million dollar monthly payments made directly to the Pakistani army to fight the "war on terror", the lower ranks of the military suffer from low morale; this was visible in the surrender of 250 soldiers in the tribal belts this year.
The failure of the government`s military operations has highlighted the need for diplomatic negotiations and dialogue with the tribal elders in order to weed out the militants. For this dialogue to have credibility, it has to be led by a democratically elected government. Given the record of the Musharraf regime, any dialogue initiated by the government under his leadership will gain little trust among the tribes. This also highlights that a shift in the US government`s conception of the "war on terror" is critical. Continued reliance on military rather than intelligence solutions and negotiations is the biggest obstacle to successfully addressing militancy in Pakistan, as well as in other Muslim countries.
What Western observers need to remember is that Pakistani society is not fundamentalist by nature. Islamic political parties have never bagged a major share of the public vote. It is therefore important to support democratic institutions in the country rather than rely on the military to fight a war against its own people.
The road to democracy is still not clear. With Musharraf as president and 60 percent of the Supreme Court and the High Court judges removed from their positions under emergency rule, there is little hope of free and fair elections in January. It is therefore important that the West support civil society`s struggle for the re-instatement of the pre-emergency judges and set the wheels in motion for a truly democratic electoral system.
* Masooda Bano is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) post-doctoral fellow at the Department of International Development and Wolfson College at the University of Oxford. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)