“For too long, Mr Musharraf has been allowed to pay lip-service to democratic forms, while the United States has winked at his blatant disdain for the substance. The justification has been the pre-eminent importance of “stability” in the world’s most dangerous place. It is time to impress upon him and the generals still propping him up that democracy is not the alternative to stability. It is Pakistan’s only hope”.
Nothing else has worked: it is time for Pakistan to try democracy.
From The Economist print edition, Jan 3rd 2008
THE war against Islamist extremism and the terrorism it spawns is being fought on many fronts. But it may well be in Pakistan that it is won or lost. It is not only that the country’s lawless frontier lands provide a refuge for al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and that its jihad academies train suicide-bombers with global reach. Pakistan is also itself the world’s second most populous Muslim nation, with a proud tradition of tolerance and moderation, now under threat from the extremists on its fringes. Until recently, the risk that Pakistan might be prey to Islamic fundamentalism of the sort its Taliban protégés enforced in Afghanistan until 2001 seemed laughable. It is still far-fetched. But after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister, nobody is laughing. This, after all, is a country that now has the bomb Miss Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, craved so passionately as prime minister in the 1970s.
There are many other reasons why the murder of Miss Bhutto (and some 20 other people unlucky enough to be near her) makes Pakistan seem a frightening place (see article). That terrorists could strike in Rawalpindi, headquarters of the Pakistani army, despite having advertised threats against Miss Bhutto, and despite the slaughter of some 150 people in Karachi on the day she returned from exile last October, suggests no one is safe. If, as many in Pakistan believe, the security services were themselves complicit, that is perhaps even scarier. It would make it even harder to deal with the country’s many other fissures: the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims; the ethnic tensions between Punjabis, Sindhis, Pushtuns and “mohajir” immigrants from India; the insurgency in Baluchistan; and the spread of the “Pakistani Taliban” out of the border tribal areas into the heartlands.
In search of statesmen
Miss Bhutto’s murder has left her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the country’s biggest, at risk of disintegration. It is now in the hands of her unpopular widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and her 19-year-old son, Bilawal, who by rights should be punting and partying with his classmates at Oxford, not risking his neck in politics. The election whose campaign killed Miss Bhutto was due on January 8th, but the Election Commission has delayed it by six weeks. The PPP will reap a big sympathy vote. But bereft of Miss Bhutto, the party—and the country—look desperately short of leaders of national stature. Other Bhutto clan-members are already sniping at her successors.
The other big mainstream party, led by her rival Nawaz Sharif, another two-time prime minister, is also in disarray. Both parties have been weakened by their leaders’ exiles, as well as by persecution at the hands of President Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship. In truth, both Miss Bhutto and Mr Sharif were lousy prime ministers. But at least they had some semblance of a popular mandate. The systematic debilitation of their parties benefits the army, which has entrenched itself in the economic as well as the political system. But it also helps the Islamist parties—backed, as they are, by an army which has sometimes found them more congenial partners than the more popular mainstream parties. The unpopularity of the Musharraf regime, hostility towards America, and resentment at a war in neighbouring Afghanistan that many in Pakistan see as directed at both Islam and their ethnic-Pushtun kin, have also helped the Islamists.
So, ironically, America’s support for Mr Musharraf, justified as necessary to combat extremism next door, has fostered extremism at home. Similarly, in the 1980s America backed General Zia ul Haq, a dictator and Islamic fundamentalist, as his intelligence services sponsored the mujahideen who eventually toppled the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. In the process, they helped create what Miss Bhutto called a “Frankenstein’s monster”—of jihadist groups with sympathisers in the army and intelligence services. The clubbable, whisky-quaffing, poodle-cuddling Mr Musharraf is no fundamentalist. But the monster still stalks his security forces.
Two straws to clutch
Yet Pakistan’s plight is not yet hopeless. Two things could still help arrest its slide into anarchy, improbable though both now seem. The first is a credible investigation into Miss Bhutto’s murder and the security-service lapses (or connivance) that allowed it to happen. Mr Musharraf’s willingness to let a couple of British policemen help the inquiry is unlikely to produce this. Every time a bomb goes off in Pakistan, people believe that one of the country’s own spooks lit the fuse. Until there has been a convincing purge of the military-intelligence apparatus, Pakistan will never know true stability.
Second, there could be a fair election. This would expose the weakness of the Islamist parties. In the last general election in 2002, they won just one-tenth of the votes, despite outrageous rigging that favoured them. Even if they fared somewhat better this time, they would still, in the most populous provinces, Sindh and Punjab, be trounced by the mainstream parties. An elected government with popular support would be better placed to work with the moderate, secular, professional tendency in the army to tackle extremism and bring Pakistan’s poor the economic development they need.
Sadly, there seems little hope that the security forces will abandon the habit of a lifetime and allow truly fair elections. The delay in the voting—opposed by both main opposition parties—has been seen as part of its plan to rig the results. The violence that has scarred the country since Miss Bhutto’s assassination may intensify. The army may be tempted to impose another state of emergency; or it may cling on to ensure that the election produces the result it wants—a weak and pliable coalition of the PPP and Mr Musharraf’s loyalists.
For too long, Mr Musharraf has been allowed to pay lip-service to democratic forms, while the United States has winked at his blatant disdain for the substance. The justification has been the pre-eminent importance of “stability” in the world’s most dangerous place. It is time to impress upon him and the generals still propping him up that democracy is not the alternative to stability. It is Pakistan’s only hope.