Whither Pakistan's Charter of Democracy?
Anil Kalhan explores some of the less explored relationships in Pakistan's democracy drama
Saturday, September 8, 2007
In Pakistan, it increasingly appears that everything old may soon be new again -- for better, but perhaps also for worse.
The drama has been riveting. Equipped with last month's Supreme Court order recognizing his "inalienable right" to return to Pakistan, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif plans to arrive in Islamabad on Monday to lead his party in this fall's elections. Not to be left behind, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- who has been negotiating with President General Pervez Musharraf over their respective political futures -- has accelerated her own plans to return to Pakistan, indicating that she will announce the timing of her return next week.
Musharraf has warned that Sharif may be arrested upon his arrival, and a special antiterrorism court this week reinstituted corruption charges against Sharif in anticipation of his return. While Sharif has apparently booked tickets on five different flights in an effort to keep intelligence officials guessing, yet another political showdown at a Pakistani airport seems inevitable. However, with the apparent encouragement of the U.S. and British governments, Musharraf has continued to negotiate with Bhutto. So far, those talks have stalled because Musharraf has insisted that he continue to serve simultaneously as president and army chief and that the president continue to have the constitutional power to dismiss the prime minister or dissolve parliament.
With all of the media attention paid to the mutual antagonism between Musharraf and Sharif -- who literally tried to kill each other in 1999 and 2000 -- and to the negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto, observers outside of Pakistan have virtually ignored the third side of this triangle, between Bhutto and Sharif themselves. In the process, the deeper structural issues that transcend the soap opera transpiring among these three personalities -- and the folly of the U.S. and British governments' efforts to broker a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto -- have been wholly obscured.
There has never been any love lost between Bhutto and Sharif, whose conflicts date back to the late 1980s when Bhutto was Prime Minister and Sharif was provincial Chief Minister of Punjab. Bhutto was convicted of corruption and went into exile during Sharif's second term as Prime Minister. Although she has opposed Musharraf in recent years, Bhutto praised Musharraf shortly after the 1999 coup and referred to Sharif as a "despot who was dividing the country."
Nevertheless, Sharif and Bhutto set aside their differences in May 2006 when they negotiated and signed the Charter of Democracy, a preconstitutional declaration which set forth legal principles and a code of conduct to govern their joint efforts to restore civilian democratic rule. The Charter, which was endorsed by most Pakistani opposition parties, committed its signatories to the restoration of the constitutional regime that existed before the 1999 coup. It pledges to abrogate constitutional amendments and other legal changes imposed by Musharraf that, among other things, institutionalized a regular, day-to-day role for the army in political affairs and restored the discretionary power of the president -- which had been repealed with unanimous support of both Sharif's and Bhutto's parties during the late 1990s -- to dismiss the Prime Minister and dissolve parliament. At the time of its adoption, advocates seeking the return of civilian democratic rule spoke in grand terms of the Charter's historic significance, with some even comparing it to the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta in its potential significance for Pakistan.
Both Sharif and Bhutto have understandably been regarded as imperfect standard bearers for the restoration of democracy. According to the conventional narrative concerning Pakistan's democratic interregnum during the 1990s, democracy fared poorly because of the incompetence, corruption and authoritarian tendencies of civilian politicians. This narrative is often propagated most forcefully by the Pakistan army itself. In his 2006 autobiography, for example, Musharraf referred to the period as the "dreadful decade of democracy." "Never in the history of Pakistan," he wrote, "had we seen such a combination of the worst kind of governance…along with corruption and the plunder of national wealth."
There certainly are elements of truth to this narrative. In addition to the allegations of corruption and mismanagement, which have been widely documented, it is ironic that both Bhutto's and Sharif's political fortunes have ascended in the wake of this year's movement by Pakistani lawyers to resist Musharraf's flouting of judicial independence by trying to dismiss Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Neither Bhutto nor Sharif particularly respected judicial independence as Prime Minister. Even as they praise the lawyers' movement in support of Chief Justice Chaudhry, at no point has either leader acknowledged their own past mistakes in infringing upon judicial independence.
The Supreme Court invalidated a number of Bhutto's judicial appointments of individuals who lacked the basic qualifications for appointment or whose appointments were made on an ad hoc, irregular basis. Bhutto initially resisted the Supreme Court's order, although she did ultimately relent and comply with its mandate. Sharif's disrespect for judicial independence was even more egregious. Two years before he was deposed, Sharif engaged in a particularly ugly effort to remove one of Chaudhry's predecessors as Chief Justice, an episode which culminated in a physical attack on the Supreme Court building by a mob of Sharif's supporters.
More fundamentally, however, neither Sharif nor Bhutto truly presided over an independent civilian government. What Musharraf calls the "dreadful decade of democracy" has been more aptly characterized by Husain Haqqani as a period of "military rule by other means." Upon her election in 1988, Bhutto agreed to conditions requiring her to leave a number of issues, including Pakistan's nuclear program and the army's budgetary and personnel matters, entirely to the army's discretion. For his part, Sharif initially came to power (like Bhutto's father) as a civilian protégé of the top army brass. His father, an industrialist who was well-connected to the army and remained politically influential throughout both of Sharif's terms as Prime Minister, facilitated the entry into politics of both Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, who served as chief minister of Punjab province (and who some have claimed is the more capable of the two).
Both Bhutto and Sharif sought to cultivate the army's support during their tenures, in part to maintain their basic ability to govern and in part to enlist the army's assistance in political conflicts with their opponents. As a result, as Ayesha Siddiqa documented in her recent book, Military, Inc., the immense economic and corporate power of the Pakistan army's interests in the private economy only continued to grow during the 1990s despite the formal supremacy of civilian rule, which only increased the army's desire to maintain its political power as well.
In the shadow of the army's continued power, neither Bhutto nor Sharif served full terms as Prime Minister. In three successive instances, with at least the army's tacit approval, the government was dismissed by the president using the constitutional authority that had been adopted during the 1980s under General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Two years after the civilian parliament unanimously repealed that authority, Musharraf simply dismissed Sharif's government and declared himself "chief executive."
The period of civilian rule in the 1990s was therefore one in which the army was able to "divide and rule" the civilian political leadership to a significant extent. And in this context, the agreement of Sharif and Bhutto to the Charter of Democracy was a significant signal that Pakistan's most prominent civilian leaders were prepared to change the nature of their own political engagement with the army more fundamentally than when they had been tangling over short-term power in the 1990s. Perhaps recognizing the ways in which their own leadership had fallen short in the past, Bhutto and Sharif pledged in the Charter that they would not "join a military regime or any military sponsored government" or "solicit the support of military to come into power or to dislodge a democratic government." Rather, they agreed that they would accept "the due role of the opposition" and, whether in opposition or in government, that they would not "undermine each other through extra constitutional ways."
However, with Bhutto now unilaterally negotiating with Musharraf, her commitment to that different approach is being severely tested, and by actively encouraging that process, the U.S. and British governments are complicit in undermining the values embodied in the Charter. Sharif already has alleged that Bhutto's negotiations with Musharraf flatly violate the Charter. That conclusion may not necessarily be correct, for if Bhutto's negotiations were to lead to an open political process in which Bhutto, Sharif, and others will be required to compete and cooperate on a level playing field -- and in which the army, whether through Musharraf or not, does not retain ultimate government authority -- both the spirit and letter of the Charter might be preserved.
Still, many Pakistani citizens suspect that Bhutto instead is simply seeking advantage for herself. As a result, she has been paying a political price for her U.S.-backed parley with Musharraf -- even among members of her own party, who mostly have not even been kept informed about that dialogue. The tensions that seem to be reemerging between Bhutto and Sharif as a result illustrate the folly of the Bush administration's continued efforts to shore up Musharraf's political standing and let personalities drive foreign policy considerations. While encouraging an arrangement between the Harvard-educated Bhutto and their loyal friend Musharraf, U.S. officials have also been quick to suggest both casually and carelessly, that Sharif would be "less friendly to [U.S.] interests than either Bhutto or Musharraf."
Such transparently cynical attempts to put the U.S. thumb on Pakistan's political scales can only taint the process by which Pakistani citizens are seeking to build a stronger democratic foundation for themselves. Musharraf and his allies have proven that they can manipulate election results if they wish to do so. If the negotiations between Bhutto and Musharraf do not lead to an open, free, and fair electoral process in which Bhutto's and Sharif's political parties can compete on equal terms -- or even if it simply appears to Pakistani citizens, following any deal with Musharraf, that the fix is in for Bhutto during the upcoming elections -- then the Bush administration may find that it has helped undermine the best hope for a meaningful transition to civilian rule that Pakistan has seen in recent years.
AM Editor's Note: Read more about Pakistan's complex relationships, preconstitutional declarations and Kalhan's take on media's coverage of both at Dorf on Law.
Date Posted: 9/8/2007