Musharraf undermines democracy in Pakistan

Liz Kohman

Last week President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan imposed 29 new constitutional amendments that increase his broad control over the Pakistani parliament and military. Musharraf imposed the amendments to prevent radical extremist groups from acquiring too much influence in the upcoming Oct. 10 national elections, and to ensure his broad control over the country during both Pakistan’s conflict with India and the U.S. war on terror. Ironically, these amendments are proving to be counter-productive, as he is angering both his constituency and Pakistan’s population of Islamic militants, inflaming tensions with India and jeopardizing the post-Sept. 11 relationship he established with the United States.

Musharraf unilaterally imposed 29 amendments to Pakistan’s constitution, which give the president a controversial amount of authority. Citing a May 2000 Pakistan Supreme Court ruling which established the president’s right to amend the constitution, Musharraf introduced amendments giving the president the ability to dissolve and reappoint the legislature, appoint the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and appoint the leaders of the country’s three military branches – a responsibility that had formerly been vested in the prime minister. He also established a National Security Council comprised of military officials that would oversee the performance of elected officials as well as military personnel, and formalized a referendum held in April granting him a five-year extension of his presidency. Musharraf did reiterate his commitment to the upcoming elections and the transition to democracy, stating that his government is “taking Pakistan from democratic dictatorship to elected democracy,” although he has removed parliament’s ability to undo any of the changes.

Unfortunately, these amendments are actually jeopardizing Musharraf’s influence among Pakistanis, which is opposite his original intent. Recent opinion polls show that a majority of Pakistanis oppose the new amendments, and both of the two main political parties are energetically mobilizing for the upcoming elections by attracting these potential voters. A spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League, of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was deposed by Musharraf in the October 1999 coup, has said that it will employ “every step short of violence” to resist Musharraf. The Pakistani People’s Party has said it would support former Prime Minister Benazir Bhuto, who said she would register to run in the election. Bhuto is in exile from Pakistan because of corruption charges pending from her tenure as prime minister, and the current government has said it will arrest her upon her return to Pakistan. Musharraf has responded by restating the common accusations that Bhuto and Sharif “looted and plundered” Pakistan.

Musharraf’s actions have so angered Islamic radicals in Pakistan that they are actually threatening the relative peace between Pakistan and India, which are fighting occasional battles over the disputed region of Kashmir. Militants were angered by his withdrawal of support for the Taliban after Sept.11, as well as the subsequent series of arrests of members of extremist groups. However, as these groups have been angered by Musharraf’s suppression of them, they are increasingly defiant. To comply with a peace arrangement with India, the Pakistani government has forbidden extremists from entering India-controlled areas of Kashmir. Disobediently, though, extremists continue the incursions and on Friday launched attacks on three Indian villages, killing 12 civilians. In response, according to Pakistan, India has launched retaliatory strikes for what the Indian government claims is Musharraf’s unwillingness to completely suppress the extremists’ incursions. Extremists are also acting out in more civil ways as well, registering several candidates with the Pakistani Election Commission. According to the spokesman of a six-party alliance, “the October 10 elections are jihad for us and we are fielding our candidates for reaching parliament to ensure supremacy of Islam and restore the Islamic democracy in the country.”

Additionally, Musharraf’s behavior is undermining Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, which must simultaneously pursue this partnership while expressing concerns about the country’s transition to democracy. Although President George W. Bush said Musharraf is “still tight with us in the war against terror,” the State Department has been vocal about expressing its disapproval. According to one State Department spokesman, Musharraf’s behavior “could make it more difficult to build strong democratic institutions.” As a result, the public opinion of the United States in the Middle East as well as in the international community in general might decline, as more evidence will be provided to accusations that the Bush administration is willing to support undemocratic governments for its own purposes.

Fortunately, Musharraf is continuing to support the upcoming national and regional elections, and it appears that he is only positioning himself to be able to control the parliament if necessary to prevent the influence of the Islamic extremists who oppose him. These extremists, though, comprise only a small percentage of the Pakistani population, with estimates averaging only approximately 5 percent. Unfortunately, though, he does not realize that by suppressing this small number of extremists and becoming increasingly autocratic, he is only encouraging them to oppose his government more fervently.