Kishwer Falkner’s article Trouble in Islamabad features in the current issue of Prospect. She is Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords for home affairs and justice
The declaration of emergency rule in Pakistan has left the US and Britain with a conundrum. While they need the military on side, they cannot any longer be seen to be supporting a “second coup.” Their carefully crafted deal between Benazir Bhutto and General Musharraf was predicated on the Pakistani supreme court being pliable. When it appeared that the court would not play ball, Musharraf “jumped” in what appears to have been a strategic miscalculation.
Given these unwelcome developments, the reaction in London and Washington has been to hold our collective breath, utter several expletives and then press Musharraf to recant on his declaration of emergency and restore elections on schedule. So we hope that in a few weeks Musharraf will step down as chief of army staff and hold elections on January 15th, to emerge sharing power with Benazir Bhutto. From our perspective, these two may not be the dream ticket, but it’s the only scenario on our books.
Not quite. There is no certainty that elections will provide more constitutional stability. The deal which was going to allow Musharraf to retain power involved such convolution on the part of the supreme court that it could never have been enacted in conformity with the constitution. If this case had been settled favourably, the next one might not have been, and so new cases would have ground on, brought by those who would have lost out. Moreover, the deal that would have allowed Bhutto to run for a third prime ministerial term would also have involved setting aside the constitution. From Musharraf’s perspective, if the troublesome constitution was to be ignored every other month, why not do away with it for the transitional period until the merits of the “stable” joint rule could be entrenched, by which time judges would have come to their senses? After all, following the 1999 coup, judges—many of the same troublemakers of last week—were made to take a new oath of loyalty to Musharraf’s government, and did. The few who resisted on the basis that their oath was to uphold the constitution were dismissed. There was no international brouhaha. At the time, Musharraf was not so indispensable to the west, his thinking seems to have gone, so why would it matter now? Hence the miscalculation.
Why are London and Washington so keen to set the clock back by a week, to revert to a situation which may well prove to be equally unsatisfactory after January 15? After all, if you want a democracy, why keep in place a dictator? The answer probably lies in the unspoken recognition that Pakistan is not ready for democracy. Its institutions are broken, including its judiciary, and the army is here to stay in one form or another. These “transitional” elections are the best on offer, particularly if they keep the mullahs out. The problem with this reasoning is that a lot has changed in the last week, and given where we are now, our strategy will not succeed. Pakistan’s instability will continue to trouble us in the foreseeable future if we don’t change tack.
So what is the right thing for us to do now? First, the west’s reliance on the military should be broad-based, supporting their institutional role in national security rather than on-off support for good or bad guys. For the moment, this will require us telling the top brass that Musharraf’s position is now untenable and he has to go – while also telling them that we will recognise a new chief of army staff who is committed to the same objectives of stability and anti-extremism. The army should therefore be reassured that it stays in the frame but under a less controversial leader.
We also need to abandon our fixation with a January 15th election, and seek the installation of an interim caretaker government to oversee fresh elections under a new electoral commission and new polling registers. This was what happened in 1988, and it is widely recognised that those elections were the only ones which commanded widespread confidence within Pakistan and externally. Were the current players to preside over these elections, the political parties which lost would continue to agitate against the new government, perpetuating unrest.
Furthermore, once a new government is in place, we need to reassure Pakistan that we are on its side in the long term and ready to assist in national reconciliation. An element of national reconciliation may have to be a new constitutional and institutional framework, with a stronger central government and institutions. This will involve serious support on the part of the west. The river of democracy does not run deep in Pakistan and would require renewal and replenishment.
Finally, here in Britain we need stand back from the Pakistan lobby. It is a highly partisan grouping comprising the agendas of different political players. It wields disproportionate influence within government circles, and heightens the sense of crisis and impending doom to the detriment of good policymaking. Britain’s interests in Pakistan lie less in Blackburn or Bradford but in facilitating Pakistan’s place in the international community as a free and stable nation, prosperous internally and peace-loving externally. That is how we will defeat terrorism and bring about lasting peace in the region.