Pakistan is a country of many firsts in the Muslim world. It is the first Muslim nation with a nuclear weapon. It is also the first Muslim nation with a female prime minister. Soon, it may be the first Muslim nation to peacefully transition from military dictatorship to semi-democracy. Recent political shifts in Pakistan’s presidential selection process reflect an optimistic trend toward greater stability and democracy for the US-backed government in a precarious position.
President Pervez Musharraf has ruled Pakistan with a strong hand since he rose to power in a bloodless coup in 1999. He has reinforced his position with continuous military backing, various alliances with Pakistan’s Islamists, and the sponsorship of the U.S., which he earned in exchange for help in the War on Terror. In recent months however, Musharraf has alienated both the Islamists and the democratic middle class, placing himself in a weakened position.
The tides shifted against Musharraf when he tried to exile Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March 2007. A swell of public outrage led to massive protests that eventually swayed Musharraf to return Chaudhry to his post. The newly strengthened Chaudhry has ever since been the strongest check on Musharraf’s power, as many issues involving his reelection are decided in the courts.
Musharraf’s opponents, while they stem from two separate ends of Pakistan’s diverse political spectrum, have all been emboldened by Chaudhry’s return. Once the sign of a strong alliance, Musharraf’s relationship with the Islamists has been strained by his cooperation with the U.S. in the War on Terror. Under pressure from the U.S. after the invasion of Afghanistan, Musharraf cracked down on terrorists hiding out in the eastern tribal territories before eventually making a peace deal with the tribes of Waziristan in 2005. Tensions flared between the government and the Islamists when radical students took over the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007. A subsequent commando raid led to 100 deaths. Many in the U.S. fear that if the Islamists destabilize the government, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could fall into the wrong hands.
On the other side, the pro-democratic middle class rallied behind Chaudhry during his brief exile, and has since placed greater pressure on Musharraf to democratize or step down. The strain between the two sides spiked in late September when the military violently quelled protests outside the Supreme Courthouse after it approved Musharraf’s candidacy for presidency. The Red Mosque raid symbolizes Islamic struggles with the government while the Supreme Court riots are symbolic of democratic hopes and aspirations.
The main weapon the democracy advocates have against Musharraf is actually the law. Pakistan’s constitution forbids the president from also holding a military position. Musharraf got a temporary pass during the 2002 election, but this time people are more vocal in their demands that he step down as head of the military if he wishes to maintain his presidency. Musharraf has made and broken the promise to step down in the past, and this time he says he will not remove the uniform until his presidency is secured. He has, however, named a successor in General Ashfaq Kayani, providing hope that he may be more sincere this time around.
To stabilize his position, Musharraf found an unlikely ally in former prime minister and political enemy Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto is from the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and has generally high popularity amongst the pro-democratic middle class. She served as prime minister from 1988-90 and again from 1993-96. However, she has lived in self-imposed exile since being charged with graft in 1999. During her tenure, she and her husband allegedly siphoned off about $1.5 billion from government contracts. Bhutto’s conditions for a power-sharing government with Musharraf included immunity from the corruption charges, getting rid of term limits for prime minister, and suspension of the presidential right to dissolve a government. Musharraf has started to make good on those promises by granting her amnesty on the corruption charges.
The US strongly supports Bhutto in spite of her record, because it sees her as a strong stabilizing force for the shaky government. A power sharing deal would broaden the government’s base and reduce the threat posed by Islamists. Many of the democratic steps taken by Musharraf have occurred only through heavy US pressure. This is an intriguing and vastly understated aspect of the now maligned Bush Doctrine. The most commonly cited examples of the Bush Doctrine’s advocacy for democracy are the very direct and proactive invasions and reconstructions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Amid these cases of perceived naive idealism, Pakistan is often cited as an example of the hypocrisy and crass realism of the Bush administration. U.S. support for Musharraf’s government stems from Pakistan’s nukes and the country’s strategic and cultural ties to Afghanistan. Current events however are revealing how the U.S.’s indirect approach in Pakistan may yet bear fruit and strengthen support for the continued spread of democracy in the Middle East.
Recent U.S. policy regarding Pakistan has created tangible undercurrents of democratization in Pakistan and buoyed the democracy movement there. The once autocratic Musharraf must now deal with the checks and balances of democracy.