Pakistan’s latest experiment in ‘‘controlled democracy’’ appears to be faltering within a few months of parliamentary elections and the nomination of a Prime Minister. The country’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, does not want parliament to vote on the Legal Framework Order (LFO), the decree that he used to amend the country’s constitution. The opposition parties in parliament, religious as well as secular, argue that it is parliament’s privilege to examine the arbitrary amendments to Pakistan’s basic law.

When the country’s last military ruler, General Zia ul Haq, allowed a phased return to democracy after several years of direct military rule, he too had allowed the new parliament to vote on constitutional amendments proposed by him. By refusing to allow debate on the LFO, General Musharraf is failing to adhere even to that precedent set by one of his military predecessors.

For now, Musharraf and the Pakistani military have things under their control. But the deadlock in parliament does not allow them to pass off their regime as a democracy. The air of political crisis, even if it is not sufficient to erode the General’s power, creates the kind of uncertainty that frightens off investment.

Above all, it does not allow Pakistan to function as a ‘‘normal’’ country. As it is, in today’s world, military rule is an anachronism. Pakistan stands in the dubious company of Burma as a country where the military chief, in uniform, is also head of the state. While Pakistan is admittedly not as repressive as Burma, it cannot take pride in the similarity of its system of governance with that international pariah.

Over the years, Pakistan has become a state that stands only on one pillar — that of the executive branch of government represented by the military and the intelligence services. The judiciary has lost its standing by repeatedly endorsing extra-constitutional interventions. Even now, General Musharraf claims that his authority to amend the constitution derives from a Supreme Court ruling. There is no recognition of the basic logic that the judicature, which has the right to interpret but not to amend the constitution, simply cannot confer a right it does not have itself on someone else.

The military or civilian executive constantly circumscribes the legislature in its functions, if and when the legislature is allowed to exist at all. Political parties operate in the shadow of larger than life figures, slandered, jailed or exiled with alarming frequency.

And then there are the ubiquitous intelligence agencies, hidden from public view but frequently seen pulling the strings in Pakistan’s complex political drama.

Unlike most Arab and Central Asian states, which have never seen democracy, Pakistan has aspired for democratic rule since its inception. Power has alternated between civilian-democratic dispensations and military rulers claiming to control institutional decline, political chaos, and economic disarray.

When General Musharraf took power he promised to restore democracy within three years, after creating institutional checks and balances and introducing reforms that would forever end the alteration of power between authoritarian military rulers and ineffective elected civilians.

Even before he achieved the status of a US ally, General Musharraf had started espousing political ideas that rested on his continuation in office rather than on the effectiveness of institutions such as an independent judiciary or a government truly accountable to parliament.

Now, with international sanctions usually applied to military regimes having been lifted in return for his support in the anti-terrorism effort, his desire to perpetuate his power without real reform has become all too obvious.

Civilians will continue to snipe at a regime lacking legitimacy. International support will depend on General Musharraf’s usefulness in the current war and will dissipate once the military situation changes. Pakistan has been down this road before. Field Marshal Ayub Khan ruled for a decade from 1958-1969, backed by the west for his participation in anti-Communist regional treaties.

General Zia ul Haq presided over the country from 1979 to his death in 1988, benefiting from Pakistan’s role as the frontline state in the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. Ayub wrote his own constitution while Zia revised the existing constitution to suit him.

Like General Musharraf, they established a one-legged system revolving around them instead of allowing other institutions of state to participate as equals in running the country. All this led to social unrest, corruption and eventual economic stagnation.

All of Pakistan’s military rulers have thought of themselves as saviours of the nation. Instead of changing the constitution or excluding certain leaders from the race, General Musharraf should try to change the way politics is practiced in the country. And he should begin by conceding to parliament the right to vote on constitutional amendments and seeking its endorsement of his ‘‘election’’ as President in last year’s controversial referendum.

Pakistani politicians look upon politics as an arrangement for the distribution of patronage rather than a process of formulating policy. This explains the greed and corruption of some of them. To be able to rob the exchequer themselves, they invite others to share the spoils.

Political loyalties are not secured through commitment to the same programme. They are bought by doling out favours and financial benefits. Tolerance and sharing of power is not a virtue of the Pakistani political class. They try to accumulate more and more power instead of exercising the authority vested in them by law. They victimise their opponents with the intention of eliminating them from politics.

What Pakistan needs to change this is not a General acting, in Musharraf’s words, as ‘‘over-watch’’. It requires a compact among the major politicians and the country’s establishment comprising Generals, judges and civil servants that ensures adherence to democratic ethics. True democracy facilitates peaceful removal from power as well as the prospect of returning to it. Losing office while respecting dissent and accepting the role of national institutions is not so bad as risking everything. Instead of trying to impose reform from above, and creating new polarisation, General Musharraf should try a different approach. He should sit down with major political leaders, including Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and secure an agreement that they will not pursue vendettas against each other.

There should also be consensus on non-interference with judicial appointments or independence of the judiciary and a commitment that there will be no amendments in Pakistan’s constitution without due process and consensus among members of parliament. In the past, a party with two-thirds majority in parliament managed to push through self-serving constitutional amendments without debate.

During Sharif’s last tenure, two constitutional amendments were rushed through parliament in a record twelve minutes. History shows us that arbitrarily made rules do not bring stability to nations. General Musharraf has allowed Pakistan’s media to remain by and large free and he invokes that as an argument that he is running a democracy. But the truth remains that military rule, even with relative freedom of expression, is not a substitute for full and prper democracy. If General Musharraf wants Pakistan’s future politicians to behave differently from the politicians of the past, he should himself act differently from previous military rulers. After such political consensus, he should allow democracy to take its course. Pakistan’s problem is not that it does not have a good constitution or a good set of laws.

The country’s greatest weakness lies in the fact that the constitution and law are subject to the whims of rulers, who change the rules when these do not suit them.

Originally appeared in The Indian Express, Nation (Pakistan), and Gulf News, April 30, 2003