The rapprochement between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif has reached a stage where it could significantly alter the course of Pakistani politics. During the last decade, Pakistan’s evolution as a constitutional democracy was hindered by the rivalry of these two leaders. Their conflict benefited the establishment, which encouraged the confrontation in the hope of retaining power. Now, however, Sharif has decided to express solidarity with Bhutto by withdrawing his nominations after hers were rejected. Pakistan may be on the way towards a final battle between supporters of democracy and the forces of establishment and military control.
Unlike most Muslim countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, Pakistan is not a nation that has never tasted the fruit of democracy. It was born in 1947 out of a democratic process and has yearned for democracy during intermittent periods of military rule. But generals have ruled Pakistan for over half its existence as an independent state. And each one of these military rulers has tried to re-define democracy.

Political leaders have often made expedient deals with the establishment for self-advancement. But whenever civilian leaders have questioned the basic premises of the establishment’s vision for the country, they have been shown the door. The consequence: the shrinking of the civilian constituency for military rule and an unwillingness to play the game by the existing rules. In that sense, the Bhutto-Sharif deal reflects a maturing of Pakistan’s politicians. It has taken over four decades of intervention to bring about such closing of ranks among the political class.

When Field Marshal Ayub Khan imposed martial law in 1958, he was able to take over a large segment of the Pakistan Muslim League. General Yahya Khan’s regime managed to do business with all political parties by holding out the promise of impartial elections. General Ziaul Haq enjoyed the support of Islamic parties as well as a large portion of the PML. Now, it seems neither the major parties nor the Islamists are willing to trust the establishment. Had they understood that earlier, it would have been difficult for Musharraf to assume power in October 1999.

It is interesting that whenever military rulers have held elections, they have done so in the hope not of restoring democracy but of exposing the incompetence of the civilians. General Yahya is often credited with holding Pakistan’s first general elections in 1970. But according to declassified US government papers, he told American diplomats in 1969 he did not expect a stable government to emerge from these polls.

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were both removed through palace coups amid accusations of widespread corruption and incompetence. Although General Musharraf has decreed that these two leaders will not be allowed to return, their parties are widely expected to win a fair poll. Pakistani voters seem inclined to forgive charges relating to patronage and receiving of kickbacks in an environment lacking sanctity of the constitution and rule of law. If plans to manipulate the electoral process in favour of the ‘King’s Party’ succeed, the new parliament will have little respect or credibility. If the opposition parties emerge as the major winners in the election despite all the maneuvers against them, it will be a major setback to Musharraf’s prestige.

Each period of military intervention has been accompanied by a warming up of relations with the United States, creating the widely held belief in Pakistan that the US prefers military dictators as its rulers. The Bush administration has also decided not to press for democratic reform in Pakistan in return for its support in the ‘‘war against terrorism’’. The State department only expressed muted concern about the prospect of Pakistani democracy the day after General Pervez Musharraf announced 29 arbitrary amendments to Pakistan’s constitution that give him absolute power. President Bush even praised General Musharraf for his support and played down any concerns about military dictatorship.

But US opinion makers point out that the US has suffered whenever it has reduced relations with nations to a personal relationship with an authoritarian ruler for the purpose of advancing an immediate strategic objective. For now, General Musharraf does not have a reputation for repression as did the Shah of Iran, nor is he reputed to be corrupt on the scale of the late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. But the US has a history of deserting strategic allies. Depending on Washington, rather than the people of Pakistan, may not be the best recipe for political survival for a Pakistani ruler.

There is still a chance to break the past pattern and attempt a national concord that includes the military and politicians. If General Musharraf reaches out to the politicians, instead of locking himself into a fight-unto-death with them, the outcome could be better for him as well as for Pakistan. But it seems unlikely that he will.

Originally published in the Indian Express, September 4, 2002