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It's Yesterday Once More

Leveraging India's invitation to lend a cloak of legitimacy, Musharraf's ascent to presidentship evokes stoic acceptance in a cynical populace

It's Yesterday Once More
It's Yesterday Once More
Gen Pervez Musharraf is famous for keeping his counsel, refusing to confide in his cabinet ministers about decisions he intends taking. So when Pakistan woke up on Wednesday (June 20) morning to read in the papers of his intention to anoint himself president, nobody was really surprised. A few hours later, the cabinet met and meekly accepted Musharraf's decision to step into the president's office in the "best national interest".

For a man who could easily depose the democratically-elected Nawaz Sharif government without a bullet being fired, the task of becoming president, in comparison, was far simpler. All he had to do was to introduce three amendments to the original provisional constitutional order (pco, through which he became chief executive in October 1999) dissolving the national and provincial assemblies, removing President Rafiq Tarar from his post and dismissing the chairman and deputy chairman of the senate as well as the speaker and deputy speaker of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies.

In the evening, Musharraf was sworn in as Pakistan's new president, thus adding another hat to the three he already wore—of the chief executive, the chief of army staff and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee. Says a Pakistan Muslim League (Sharif group) leader acerbically, "What's he waiting for? Musharraf should now take over the Supreme Court and appoint his corps commanders to the high courts in the provinces."

But there were no spontaneous protests in the street, no public display of dismay at the subversion of the Constitution. All the common man wanted to know was: "Will the Badshah now hike prices further?" In fact, the only opposition to Musharraf's decision to become president came from the man most affected by it—Rafiq Tarar. The ex-president did not resign, as was thought to be the case, but was removed through the pco. His statement after the event bears this out: "A few days earlier, I was being told that in order to implement the government agenda and further national objectives, the assumption of the president's office by the chief executive is very essential and today I have been removed through a pco."

Musharraf's decision to usurp the office of president testifies, once again, to the ease with which the Pakistani Constitution can be subverted to serve the interests of power-hungry generals. It also indicts the judiciary for the role it has played. When Musharraf deposed Sharif in October 1999, suspended the Constitution and declared himself chief executive, Awami National Party leader Esfandar Wali Khan petitioned the Supreme Court against the derailment of democracy. The Supreme Court, however, validated the coup subject to Musharraf holding elections by October 2002. The judgement consequently allowed Musharraf to govern the country through the pco, which he invoked to become president.

Yet, over the last two months, Pakistan's political class had been talking of the inevitability of Musharraf becoming president. There were reports that the army was considering this in order to ensure continuity in the administration and provide durability to a clutch of economic decisions the government had taken under the pressure of donor countries and multilateral lending agencies.

What, though, has come as a surprise is the timing. In a jocular vein, most Pakistanis feel that the general, dressed in sherwani and shalwar, would not need to salute Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee."This should send the right signals to the Kashmiris, that Musharraf wasn't saluting the enemy," scoffs one retired general.

His remark illustrates vividly the inability of most to provide a cogent explanation for the timing. Nobody is convinced by the official explanation that Tarar had to be removed as those who had elected him—members of the national and provincial assemblies—had ceased to exist. For, at least two former presidents—Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Farooq Leghari—had continued in office even when the houses were dissolved.

There is, as Benazir Bhutto and others have pointed out, the protocol issue—that it would be easier for India to host him as president than as chief executive. This is specious as protocol is not binding on any country and many heads of state have known to set aside the customary code of behaviour.

Some feel Musharraf decided to wear the mantle of president because, in handling the Kashmir issue, it would, symbolically, allow him to speak on behalf of the entire country—which the title of chief executive or chief of army staff couldn't have. But since the post of president has been usurped under a suspended Constitution, there's doubt even about the symbolic value.

Perhaps the summit was only a pretext to appoint himself president. The military regime's initial gameplan was to have Mian Azhar, who had split the Pakistan Muslim League, drum up support in a restored National Assembly and then endorse Musharraf as president. But this fell through as Azhar failed to rally a sizeable section of the League to his side. Next, a desperate Musharraf had planned to win endorsement through those elected in the recent local body election. But this too failed as most winning candidates were backed by Benazir's Pakistan People's Party (ppp) and Sharif's Muslim League.

Tired of waiting, and with time running out, Musharraf perhaps decided that the impending Agra summit provided him the opportunity to legitimise himself. After all, he could tell a cynical nation that this was being done to resolve the Kashmir dispute. It is quite another matter that people in Pakistan haven't cared to ask him for justification, accustomed as they are to army generals overthrowing elected governments.

There is, though, no doubt that with Musharraf becoming president, international donors and western countries—after making the expected noises—will heave a sigh of relief. Not sure of the durability of the regime, nor about the intentions of his future successors, they have been anxious about the capital committed in Pakistan. Their worry has now been addressed since Musharraf will remain in office for the next five years. Though his takeover has been challenged in two courts on constitutional grounds, his term seems assured. "The tenure is well defined for the office of president. It is very clear," Musharraf's press secretary told The News.

It's true that if he calls for an election in October next year, the new National Assembly will have to ratify all the decisions Musharraf has taken now, including that of becoming president. Isn't there a possibility that the new assembly might refuse to endorse Musharraf's decisions? Not really, feel most observers. Says columnist Ayaz Amir, "I think we're heading for a system very much in vogue during the time of Ayub Khan. This means that the assemblies of the future will be in the shadows and the military would be all in all".

The country's history bears this out.Says ppp's leading legal eagle, Aitizaz Ahsan, "All extra-constitutional and unconstitutional measures by military dictators including Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq had required Parliament's validation. Legitimacy by the Supreme Court has not been found sufficient.... So, after the restoration of democracy following Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan's reigns, the 1973 Constitution was adopted by the democratic system. This brought in Article 270 to validate and confirm those deviations from the Constitution; those not validated by this article ceased to exist. Similarly, after Zia, article 270-A had to be added to validate large portions of his amendments.... Even though military governments had the backing of the Supreme Court, in the end they had to come to Parliament. It should be no different for President Musharraf, either."

As Amir points out, "We are a nation of lawyers and think too much about validity. It should be no trouble for Musharraf as it has not been for the other dictators. What about the manner in which Rafiq Tarar was ousted? We should not trouble ourselves too much about this validation bit."

Also, Musharraf might call for elections under a revised Constitution. For one, like his predecessors, he could think of giving a large role to the military, perhaps even making it supreme or empowering it with countervailing powers under the new Constitution. He would also ensure that the National Security Council becomes a permanent statutory body—and keep the elected government on a tight leash. As Musharraf himself said the day he was sworn in, "We shall continue business as usual. Pakistan shall continue to move forward. All that I have said will be ensured when we have a National Security Council at the top to (provide) balance."

So, does this mean the army in Pakistan will exercise statutory and legitimate powers a la Turkey? Says Shafqat Mahmood, a former senator who was earlier a minister in Musharraf's cabinet, "Musharraf faces a classic dilemma. He's at the top and accolades are pouring in as homage to his power. Yet, it is a power based on the thinnest of foundations. None of our military rulers have departed with any love. Will the general be able to transcend this horrific legacy?"

But Pakistan might have to wait inordinately long for Musharraf's departure and restoration of democratic governance. For one, political parties are not expected to mobilise popular opinion against the new president. At best, they will issue statements full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Sample Tehriq-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan's statement: "The time has now come for the government to announce a clear roadmap for the return to democratic and constitutional rule. For the people of Pakistan, it does not matter if the head of the government is the chief executive or the president, what they demand is a way out of the grinding poverty, unemployment and insecurity."

Such statements don't hold out promise of a popular movement against the Musharraf regime. And, anyway, the regime has not allowed the Opposition to hold rallies in the recent past and wouldn't allow them in the future either. With Sharif and Benazir languishing in exile, it will be easy sailing for Musharraf until, like other dictators, he too sinks under the weight of his own powers.

Till then, the people of Pakistan won't be stirred. Amir sums it up succinctly: "When have the people mattered, anyway? They have lost their capacity to hope and will take this new change in stride.What difference does it make to them if Musharraf is either chief executive or president?" Only the rest of the world, barring India, Myanmar and China, has sounded aghast at Musharraf's makeover.
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