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Back to Bhutto?

June 28, 2007 |
Whatever happens, Pakistan will be stuck with a highly imperfect system in which the military continues to wield a great deal of power; and the west will be stuck with a very imperfect ally in the "war on terror," or at least the war in Afghanistan.
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One of the nice things about Pakistan at the moment is that it makes me feel young again. I first went there in 1988 as a stringer for the Times to cover the aftermath of General Zia's assassination and the military-managed "transition to democracy." The inheritors of government were Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s party (PPP), but the military was careful to balance her electoral victory by keeping an ally of theirs, Mian Nawaz Sharif, as chief minister of the most populous province, Punjab.

Nineteen years have passed, the Soviet Union has fallen, the US has invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, China has emerged as an economic superpower and my own life has been transformed -- and yet in Pakistan we are once again talking about a managed transition from military rule to that of Benazir Bhutto.

That the world can have changed so much, and Pakistan so little, says a great deal about the relationship between socioeconomic stagnation and political stability there -- an underlying stability which belies the surface volatility of Pakistani affairs. Pakistani society, with its thick network of clan and family allegiances, has proved incapable of generating modern political mass parties. What it has is one dynastic party, the PPP, and others which are mere congeries of local bosses and landowners. There are only two "real" Pakistani parties in the western sense -- with grassroots organisation and some sort of programme -- and both of them would tear the country apart if they ever gained supreme power. These are the MQM, an ethnic Muhajir party, and the Jamaat-Islami, a radical Islamist force.

Closely related to the weakness of the parties is the strength of the military. The military is strong because it is the only Pakistani institution which works according to modern Weberian rules, as a more or less orderly, meritocratic and bureaucratic force with an esprit de corps and a capacity for self-discipline. The weakness and corruption of the civilian parties has allowed the military repeatedly to seize power -- and military power in turn has contributed to civilian weakness.

While General Musharraf’s days are probably numbered, it is unlikely his replacement will make much difference to Pakistan’s future, because the underlying factors determining that future will remain. According to the constitution, Pakistan must hold parliamentary elections by early next year. There has been talk of Musharraf postponing the elections, but this seems unlikely. Washington is opposed, and generals will be unhappy about a move that would probably involve the army in domestic repression.

The office of president is elected by members of parliament. Fearing that the parliamentary elections will lead to a victory for the opposition parties, Musharraf plans to have himself re-elected by the existing parliament this autumn -- something the opposition rejects as illegal.

The US is discreetly pushing for a deal in which Musharraf would remain as president but step down as military head, and either Bhutto or one of her nominees would become prime minister. For Bhutto to become premier would, however, require not only dropping the corruption charges that have driven her into exile, but also an amendment to the constitution, which at present permits only two terms as prime minister.

Such a deal would probably be the best way forward for Musharraf, Bhutto and indeed Pakistan. However, following the protests that have erupted in recent months following Musharraf’s suspension of the country’s chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhary, Musharraf’s authority has slipped so badly that many PPP activists are now hoping to get rid of him altogether. Bhutto has formed a tenuous alliance with her old enemy Nawaz Sharif, with a view to putting together a coalition government after the elections. As for Musharraf, such is his contempt for Bhutto and the PPP -- which is not unjustified, given their record in power -- that he still appears to be hoping to keep them out of power altogether. It is even possible that he would feel so humiliated by the prospect of sharing power with Bhutto that he would prefer to resign.

Despite the protests, the president’s declining power is not the result of a new mass movement demanding radical change, but of the same factors that have brought down most previous Pakistani administrations: the inability of the government to provide enough patronage to political elites; and an alliance of those elites with the perpetually discontented, semi-employed youth of Pakistan’s cities.

At a certain point, when serious unrest spreads to those areas of northern Punjab from where the army recruits most of its soldiers, the high command steps in and forces a change of administration -- whether civilian or military. In my view, this is by far the most likely scenario for Musharraf’s eventual departure: other generals will demand it, and will then manage a "transition to democracy," just as they did in 1988. The Pakistani opposition and media are dubbing the current unrest a "revolution," but it is nothing of the kind. The only truly revolutionary force in Pakistan today are the radical Islamists, and while they are increasingly troublesome and violent, they are -- thankfully -- very far from being able to stir a nationwide revolution.

So the first thing to understand about Pakistan’s coming "transition to democracy" is that it won’t be that at all. It will be a return to civilian government, by the same old civilian elites, with the military retaining a strong, if veiled, share of power. It will be helped by the fact that the PPP, while it will certainly be the biggest party after next year’s elections, is unlikely to gain more than 30 per cent of the vote. It will therefore have to create a more or less unstable coalition with other parties, most of which have no reason to love it.

The actual nature of governance will not change at all, as far as most Pakistanis are concerned. It is certainly unlikely to get any better. Management of the economy could get a great deal worse -- for in this area at least, Musharraf and his prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, have the best record since another military ruler, Ayub Khan, in the 1960s.

A return of civilian rule is also unlikely to make Pakistan a more reliable US client state in the "war on terror." A dangerous illusion is growing in Washington, fuelled by PPP representatives, that a future PPP-led government, because it will be democratically elected, will have the legitimacy to launch a military crackdown on the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan frontier.

This is deeply counterintuitive, since every poll shows that a big majority of Pakistanis detest US strategy in general and the US role in Afghanistan in particular, and disapprove even of existing levels of Pakistani help. This is especially true of the Pashtuns -- 15 per cent of the population -- from whom most Taliban support in Pakistan is drawn. When I visited Peshawar in May, I asked a group of students at Peshawar University -- including PPP supporters -- if they would accept a military crackdown in the tribal areas if a democratic government ordered it. Every one said no.

When the army launched a major campaign against the Taliban in Waziristan in 2005, the result was anger and even desertion among Pashtun troops. Given the military’s deep fears of mutiny, it seems unlikely that a civilian government, even one backed by Washington, could force the military to obey.

So whatever happens, Pakistan will be stuck with a highly imperfect system in which the military continues to wield a great deal of power; and the west will be stuck with a very imperfect ally in the "war on terror," or at least the war in Afghanistan. Then again, an imperfect ally is a great deal better than the military mutiny and state collapse that could result if Washington does manage to subjugate a Pakistani government to its will.