The March of Democracy

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The issue of President Musharraf’s uniform has now entered a decisive stage. The National Assembly of Pakistan has passed a bill facilitating the retention of uniform by the President, if chooses to do so. Whatever the final outcome, is certain to be crucial for the long-term political development in Pakistan. Let us have a look at what the various parties to the debate feel on this matter.

President Musharraf considers remaining in uniform necessary because he thinks, “leaving the army could lead to chaos” and could have negative impact on “continuity and sustainability.” When asked as to why he could not carry his policies without uniform he emphasizes the importance of perception. “If there is a perception that I have become weak, there can be political destabilization.” In any case he feels that vast majority (actually 96%) of the people of Pakistan want him to retain his post of army chief.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has stated that because of the various internal and external challenges faced by the country the president should retain his uniform, as “the army post for the President is the key to stability.” The prime minister, who is not a career politician, does not consider that having a president in uniform would undermine the democratic order.

The outgoing prime minister and the President of the ruling faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, Chaudhry Shujaat has stated that the president should not shed his uniform for another five year for the reason that “terrorism, unemployment and price hike are major problems facing the country at present and only a man of strong nerves could effectively deal with them.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are critical of the intended move of the President. This group is lead by the religious alliance Mutahidda Majlis-Amal (MMA). Their opposition has a personal note to it, as they feel having been taken for a ride by Musharraf on this issue.

In December 2003 they broke ranks with other opposition parties to workout a comprise deal with President Musharraf regarding his intention to amend the constitution. This agreement paved the way for amending the constitution, greatly enhancing the power of the president and institutionalizing the role of the armed forces through the creation of National Security Council (NSC).

The payback from the president on this cooperation was to be his stepping down form the post of army chief by December 31, 2004. Now that there is a chance that he may not do so the MMA is naturally incensed. It makes them look anything from gullible to accomplice. No wonder Qazi Hussain Ahmed, President of MMA, has declared that “the uniform issue is now our prestige and honor point and we will protect our honor at all costs.”

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, presently living in exile, whose Peoples Party still wields substantial electoral strength has also come down hard saying that ” it was a sad day for Pakistan that the military chief broke his solemn oath to the nation and the parliament to take off his uniform”. Keeping the western sensitivities in view she also declared “it bodes ill for a nuclear country to be without a political system based on the rule of law.”

Yet another prime minister living in exile, Nawaz Sharif, who was deposed by Musharraf, is quite understandably very vociferous in his condemnation. He considers continued involvement of Musharraf in political affairs as counter productive to democracy and also damaging to the prestige of the armed forces.

As regards to the legal position about the retention or otherwise of uniform there again are divergent views. Not only the National Assembly has voted to authorize the President to retain his uniform but also so has the two largest provincial assemblies of Punjab and Sindh. On the other hand many legal fraternities including the Pakistan Bar Council and Sind High Court Bar Association and other jurists consider that such a move would be outright unconstitutional.

This then is the prevailing equation in Pakistan on the question of retention of uniform by the President. What about outside Pakistan? As political matters in Pakistan have always generated significant interest in foreign countries it would be interesting to gauge their reaction on this issue.

The most important foreign connection for Pakistan off-course is the US. The official reaction is that although the US wants Pakistan to move towards “fully functioning democracy”, but also there is a need to look at the ground realties in Pakistan. President Musharraf’s path of “enlightened moderation” still finds acceptance in the US.

The European countries or the Commonwealth, who actively monitor the political development in Pakistan have generally remained low-key on this issue, except to remind President Musharraf of his assurances about progressing towards democracy. In fact during his recent visit to Pakistan British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon stated that it would be “understandable” if Musharraf decided to remain in uniform because of the current difficult circumstances in Pakistan.

So what can we discern from this summarization?

– The reason given by the President and others supporting him about the necessity of retaining the uniform are very general in nature. The same situation could last for years and could even get worse.

– It is difficult to understand the need of the amendment of the constitution giving more powers to the President and creating the NSC, if a uniformed president was the only way out.

– A vast majority of politicians in Pakistan are making their own position untenable by insisting that only a President in uniform could face the challenges facing the country.

– The Opposition for the present appears to be rather fragmented to mount any serious challenge. In fact the MMA by accepting the amendments to the constitution is considered by many other opposition members to be partially responsible for the present situation.

– If President Musharraf decided to retain his uniform it is not likely to produce any major repercussions either within the country or outside, at least in the short term. However, such a move will continue to generate political discord and impede the political process in Pakistan, which could take sudden and serious turn.

Talking about whether Musharraf should don the uniform or not in a country which has for better part of its existence been ruled by the military might seem rather naive. The fact of the matter, however, is that when progress or otherwise of democracy is the subject of discussion this issue becomes relevant.

Regardless of the merit or otherwise of the ‘ground realities’ existing in Pakistan, it is difficult to envision a democratic set up where army chief is the head of state/ government. So the claim that in doing so the ‘sustainable democracy’ is being nurtured is slightly far fetched. The idealist may claim that in fact the exact opposite is true.

On the other hand what if there was no democratic set up at all, as it exists today? Any form of democracy is better than no democracy. All democratic progress everywhere has been from an imperfect state. This line of reasoning could be termed realistic or apologetic depending on the point of view. One will have to make his or her pick. Or President Musharraf may still shed his uniform as he promised and take the sting out of this controversy.

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