Deviation from democracy by the force of arms and a return to it again is a difficult transition anywhere. Pakistan is no exception. The context is different: political instability, radical Islamists and a deteriorating security situation have made it one of the most dangerous places in the world. Between the appointment of a “successor” to Pervez Musharraf as the next chief of the army staff and the bloody return of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, have come an ordinance, a rigged presidential election and court battles. This is hardly the sort of democratic transition that would inspire confidence in the citizens of Pakistan and the international community.
The appointment on 2 October of Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as vice-chief of army staff, in a sense, kicked off the transition process. It had been preceded by months of negotiation with Benazir Bhutto. Days later, on 5 October, the general promulgated the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that effectively pardoned Bhutto of all charges levelled against her.
Musharraf has had a busy time—a day later on 6 October, he participated in the presidential election. It was shorn of legitimacy: in the senate, 42 members abstained from voting while in the national assembly 146 legislators abstained. The election is under judicial challenge. The result cannot be declared until the Supreme Court settles the matter. The court is also hearing a bunch of petitions on the legality of the NRO.
All this has created deep uncertainty about the process. What will happen if the court annuls the presidential election or declares Musharraf’s bid as illegal? Will he then give up the army chief’s position? What if Bhutto is not able to remove the bar on holding the prime minister’s position for the third time?
The Pakistani judiciary has some difficult decisions to take. It has to uphold the law while deciding on the legality of steps meant to usher in democracy. At the same time, if it holds them ultra vires the constitution, it risks injecting more turmoil into an already dysfunctional polity. Possibly, it may end up killing a chance to bring back democracy. Like a curate’s egg, it’s an unappetizing prospect.
That is not all. Beyond judicial questions lie uncertainties about governance and the equilibrium between state and religion in Pakistan. Militant Islamization proceeding apace in a society where the state is fighting terrorists who are convinced Islamists is a recipe for disaster.
Bhutto’s return cannot alter this reality. Even if she manages to become prime minister, she may not be able to control the scourge of terrorism that finds nourishment from militant Islam and in turn feeds it.
As an elected leader she may find this posing considerable difficulties for her. Unless she rids her country of rabid preachers, bringing order to Pakistan and making democracy work may not be possible for her. Before she can think of reviving the country’s economy, she has to sort out these problems.
This is likely to create problems for India. Every new regime in Pakistan creates uncertainties. Under Musharraf, relations have remained on an even keel. Problems remain unsolved, but relations have not deteriorated. While she has publicly wished for better relations with India, given the domestic problems that await her, that may not be a priority. Her previous stint does not evoke happy memories in India. With radicals in abundance now, things may get out of hand.
At the moment, support for her comes from people who have had poor economic prospects under military rule. These include Pakistan’s impoverished millions. Unless she delivers on the economic front, she risks going down the road she has travelled before. That may result in hankering for military rule and its legitimization again.
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