Musharraf – Friend Or Foe?

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has
granted himself a wide array of powers
, including the ability to dismiss Parliament at any time and for any reason, change the Constitution, and appoint judges to the Supreme and lower courts. On the surface, it would appear that Musharraf is setting himself up as the sole power in Pakistan.

However, the question remains, is he really? Or are these measures necessary to set up the foundations for Pakistani democracy. After all, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the moderm Turkish state, and example for Musharraf, also was considered dictatorial in many of his actions, but Turkey is now the only Muslim nation with any real democratic credentials. Musharraf has to take a nation that is rife with radical Islamic fundamentalism and transform it into a modern, democratic, and largely secular state.

The brilliant Samuel Huntington has a set of criteria for democratization that gives a good guide to what needs to be done. (These come from his article in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 106, No. 4. (Winter, 1991-1992), pp. 601-602 for the political science scholars out there…)

  1. Secure your political base. As quickly as possible place supporters of democratization in key power positions in the government, the party, and the military.
  2. Maintain backwards legitimacy, that is, make changes through the established procedures of the nondemocratic regime and reassure standpatter groups with symbolic concessions, following a course of two steps forward, one step backward.
  3. Gradually shift your own constituency so as to reduce your dependence on government groups opposing change and to broaden your constituency in the direction of opposition groups supporting democracy.
  4. Be prepared for the standpatters to take some extreme action to stop change (for example, a coup attempt) – possibly even stimulate them to do so – and then crack down on them ruthlessly, isolating and discrediting the more extreme opponents of change.
  5. Seize and keep control of the initiative in the democratization process. Only lead from strength and never introduce democratization measures in response to obvious pressure from more extreme radical opposition groups.
  6. Keep expectations low as to how far change can go; talk in terms of maintaining an ongoing process rather than achieving some fully elaborated democratic utopia.
  7. Encourage the development of a responsible, moderate opposition party, which they key groups in society (including the military) will accept as a plausible non-threatening alternative government.
  8. Create a sense of inevitability about the process of democratization so that it becomes widely accepted as a necessary and natural course of development even if to some people it remains and undesirable one.

Musharraf is clearly unwilling to allow the October Parliamentary elections result in a slide back towards fundamentalism. Given the situation, Musharraf can be seen as trying to protect the gains made in the last few years from being erased by a hostile Parliament. It is one of the paradoxes of democratization that sometimes authoritarian means must be made in order to safeguard the building of real democracy. If Musharraf can not misuse these powers, and that is a big if, it could be seen as a positive sign for Pakistan rather thana negative one. Remember, Ataturk seized power in Turkey in the 1920’s and the reforms he made did not result in a truly free election and a democratic transfer of power until 1950. Pakistan may take even longer, and given the choice of having power vested in a man who has shown some degree of willingness to support democracy or a group of radical Islamists, the safer choice is clear.

Musharraf has also made some rather progressive changes as well, such as reserving a set number of seats in Parliament for women. It will take a long amount of time, likely decades, before Pakistani civil society will be sufficient to support true democracy. Until then, Pakistani democracy needs to take some drastic actions to ensure that the democratic foundations that have already been put into place are not destroyed by a wave of fundamentalism.

Musharraf has a choice now. He must lead from strength, and completely crush and discredit the radical Islamic factions operating in his country. He has already failed to do this by releasing many Islamic militants who had been held by his government. Once those forces are thoroughly discredited, he can then start building a real democracy, including responsible and democratic opposition groups.

Rushing this process would be fatal to the chances of Pakistani democracy. As Huntington wisely noted, a democratizer cannot work without being in a position of strength. Musharraf cannot be seen as acting at the whims of outside forces. Musharraf must be given the chance to do what he needs to do to stabilize the Pakistani political system, and that means acting in a way that may not be democratic in the short term. The West’s attitude towards Pakistan should be one of cautious optimism. If Musharraf has shown a willingness to combat Islamic extremism in the past, some recent actions nonwithstanding. If he can ensure that he can safely move against these groups, there’s a good chance that he will. While human rights and pro-democracy groups are already raising a stink over Musharraf’s moves, the interests of democracy are still better served by having him in power than insisting on a form of democracy that will rapidly deteriorate back into the "failed state" category.

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