World Leaders Forum Slideshow

Student Essays

Musharraf's Democratic Talk, Military Walk

By Aqil Shah

Some states have armies. Some armies have states. In Pakistan, the army is the state. The country’s few civilian governments have been guilty of misrule and corruption. But for most of its history, Pakistan has been ruled by its generals with U.S. backing. General Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in October 1999 after deposing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is hardly different from his military predecessors. But he operates in an international environment which is not favorable to military rule. So the general hides his bayonet by creating a democratic façade at home and projecting himself as the bulwark against Islamic extremism abroad.

Democratic Facades

Studying comparative politics at Columbia, especially courses on "Middle East Authoritarianism in Comparative Perspective" and "Comparative Political Development," has made me more closely appreciate the existential dilemma faced by authoritarian regimes. Lacking the legitimacy endowed by electoral mandates, or the mobilizing ideology available to totalitarian regimes, authoritarian rulers typically justify non-democratic rule by promising democracy in the future. In true authoritarian fashion, General Musharraf claims that he too is a “real believer” in democracy and that he has allowed freedom of speech and created a local government scheme to empower the people of Pakistan (Real Believer in Democracy | start: 0:36:6 | end: 0:36:28).

But actions speak louder than rhetoric. The general has reneged on his promise to restore democracy and relinquish his post as army chief. To distract the international community, the military has instead fobbed off the thankless task of day-to-day governing to a powerless civilian government even as the generals continue to rule with an iron grip. A military-dominated national security council, headed by Musharraf, makes key national policy decisions which are then rubber stamped by the elected cabinet. So much for democracy.

The general tactfully allows freedom of speech for his critics. But freedom after speech is another matter. Last year, Javed Hashmi, the acting president of ousted PM Sharif’s party, was sentenced to 23 years in prison in a summary trial for inciting mutiny in the army. Mr. Hashmi’s crime was that he publicly read out a letter he had apparently received from disgruntled military officers. Journalists and dissidents who cross the “national security” boundaries policed by the generals are regularly intimidated, many have been kidnapped and tortured. Even some rape victims who speak out are treated like enemies of the state. Shazia Khalid, a medical doctor brutally raped by a military official in the restive Baluchistan province in January 2005, was silenced and forced into exile. When quizzed by Washington Post about her case just days before he came to Columbia, the general said: “You must understand the environment in Pakistan. This has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped” (audio recording is available at

Musharraf's rhetoric on local empowerment is belied by his government's blatant rigging of the local government polls for district and tehsil (subdistrict) nazims (mayors) held in August 2005. His noble plans to hold general elections in 2007 notwithstanding (noble plans | start: 0:40:19 | end: 0:40:36), there is evidence to suggest that Musharraf intends to use these nazims (for one via the targeted allocation of development funds) to acquire a two-thirds majority in 2007 for his supporters in the national and provincial legislatures. This will help him be re-elected as president for five more years and allow him to engineer Pakistan’s parliamentary system further in the direction of a presidential one.

His “non-party” local empowerment scheme (known as the Devolution Plan) is, in general, designed to shore up indirect military rule and has no constitutional basis. Devolution from the center to the local level negates the very concept of decentralization as it bypasses the four provinces, Pakistan’s federating units. The military has used local governments to distribute state patronage for co-opting traditional local elites with the aim of nullifying opposition parties and rooting its power in local politics. By thus consolidating local power hierarchies and hostilities, the military scheme has in fact contributed to political disempowerment and exacerbated sub-national divisions along kinship, ethnic and sectarian lines.

Bulwark or Facilitator of Extremism?

No one can deny that the general has cooperated with the U.S. in capturing “foreign” Al-Qaeda terrorists (Al-Qaeda Taliban | start: 0:27:3 | end: 0:27:41). But he continues to patronize domestic jihadi groups and provides sanctuary to the Taliban for the military’s on-again, off-again jihads in Indian Kashmir and Afghanistan. While Musharraf's strategy to tackle extremism is premised on “winning the hearts and minds of people” (Hearts and Minds-Enlightened Moderation | start: 0:26:50 | end: 0:27:2), he relies on the support of Islamists to marginalize the two most popular secular Pakistani opposition parties (Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League) which he views as the real enemy.

In the 2002 general elections, the Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA, United Action Forum), an alliance of six Islamist parties, bagged 25 percent of national seats, and in the strategically crucial North-West Frontier Province, it won 50 percent of the contested provincial assembly seats. Contrast this result with the 1997 and 1993 elections when religious parties won only nine and two of the 217 national assembly seats respectively.

Columbia Political Science Professor Alfred Stepan and I have collected evidence which shows that the military contributed to the result because the bogey of an Islamist-run Pakistan also helps Musharraf project himself as the West’s only option in an "unstable" Pakistan. For instance, the military openly applied coercion to restrict the freedom of association of the two moderate parties in the 2002 elections (political parties are free | start: 0:43:15 | end: 0:43:28) even as it allowed Islamists a free hand to hold campaign rallies. No less damning, the military helped the Islamist parties by decreeing that only candidates with a bachelor's degree could run for national or provincial elections. This provision disqualified about half the previous parliamentary incumbents of moderate parties from contesting. Since degrees from madrassas, the Islamic religious schools, were allowed to count as a bachelor's degree, virtually no MMA candidates were disqualified. Despite all this manipulation, the unrecognized fact is that the MMA only secured 11 percent of the national vote.

Deprivation or Development?

General Musharraf is right in asserting that extremism is the product of political deprivation (deprivation powerless lead to extremism | start: 0:45:50 | end: 0:46:3). Again, he does not practice at home what he preaches abroad. There is no recognition on his part that authoritarian regimes like his own breed powerlessness because they block regular democratic avenues of participation, driving people towards political extremism. In the context of a multi-ethnic state like Pakistan, where the military is perceived as controlled by the numerically superior and politically dominant Punjabi ethnic group, military rule undermines federalism and fuels ethno-regional tensions. It is no surprise that Musharraf’s rule has evoked violent armed opposition from nationalist groups in the Baluchistan province. Thus democracy, or Dahl’s more empirically accurate “polyarchy” which combines public participation and electoral competition, is necessary to prevent the tyranny of one minority, military generals in Pakistan’s case, from prevailing over the political preferences of multiple minorities.

It would be unfair not to admit that the Musharraf regime has stabilized Pakistan’s macro-economy and recently presided over an impressive growth rate (Economic Performance | start: 0:15:26 | end: 0:15:48). But military authoritarian regimes are typically obsessed with economic growth because there is not much else they can base their legitimacy on. Besides, the general conveniently failed to mention in his speech that his supposed miraculous turnaround around was underwritten by the lifting of economic sanctions, external financial flows and debt restructuring offered to Pakistan in the aftermath of 9/11. The real test is to sustain growth and evenly distribute its benefits. Pakistan’s economic growth has been highly skewed. Even official statistics show that poverty and unemployment have been rising steadily since 1999. Growing economic inequalities coupled with ethno-regional and political disaffection against centralized military rule pose serious risks to the country’s political and economic development.

The international community, especially the United States, should use its financial and diplomatic influence with the Musharraf government to ensure that the 2007 general elections provide a level playing field to the secular opposition parties and lead to representative, civilian rule, which is the best hedge against religious extremism.

This essay was sponsored by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) and produced using their technology, Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning (VITAL).