Tuesday, Apr 09, 2002
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BY ANY TEST of genuine democratic ethos, the decision by Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, to seek political legitimacy through a referendum is unwise. In fact, Gen. Musharraf's controversial move is out of sync with his own record of being courageous, often innovative as well, in addressing the challenges that confront him and his country. While he seems to regard the proposed referendum as a strategic masterstroke in domestic politics, it must be denounced. Pakistan's military ruler has clearly deviated from the straight path towards restoration of democracy. Although he seized power in October 1999 through a coup that was entirely bloodless, he remained beyond the pale of international diplomacy for a considerable period thereafter. The main argument was that he had sinned against democracy by toppling an elected Prime Minister. It was at the height of such international pressure that Gen. Musharraf outlined a roadmap to revive Pakistan's democracy. Now, apt indeed in these circumstances is the remark by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, that the Pakistan President has swerved from the positive roadmap which he himself drew up not long ago. There was no place for a power-endorsing referendum of this type in that scheme of reinventing democracy in Pakistan. The second factor of equal concern to the international community is the manner in which Gen. Musharraf has ignored pro-democracy opinion at home too.
In a sense, an amorphous coalition of forces opposed to Gen. Musharraf is beginning to take shape within Pakistan in the countdown to the prospective referendum. With some brazenly radicalised Islamic parties seeking to make common cause with the disparate groups on the pro-democracy circuit, the going may not be as smooth as he seems to have wished. More importantly, the arguments being marshalled against the planned referendum are not without a political sting. At a purely legal-constitutional level, the prime issue is whether a plebiscite will be in tune with the letter and spirit of the Pakistan Supreme Court's ruling that mandated a resuscitation of the democratic polity by October 2002. Although Gen. Musharraf contends that his plan is no infraction of the court's blueprint, he is no less embarrassed by the comparisons already being drawn between him and Pakistan's previous military dictators, Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq, insofar as their methods to entrench themselves in power were concerned. With Gen. Musharraf pledging to avoid their deviousness and to pose a constitution-friendly question at the referendum, it is obvious that he does not want to get bogged down in legalities.
Gen. Musharraf's critics at home ask why he should fight shy of facing the people in a normal democratic election if, as he claims, the "silent majority" of Pakistanis backs his reforms for snuffing out religious-political extremism and reviving the stagnant economy. Closely linked to such criticism is a caustic suggestion that he ought to send soldiers-in-uniform to the homes of Pakistanis to ascertain their real preferences for him. While the biting sarcasm can hardly be missed, the larger question is whether Gen. Musharraf actually intends to create a militarised form of presidential government by opting for this referendum ahead of the parliamentary elections that were implicitly suggested in the relevant ruling of the Supreme Court. Overall, the litmus test in Pakistan will be the restoration of genuine democracy even if Gen. Musharraf, helped by the current distractions of the international community and America's diplomatic ambivalence about his calculations, is able to move on. His own reasoning, as spelt out in an exclusive interview to this newspaper, is that "if the people of Pakistan are with me, everything is do-able". The question is whether a manipulative referendum can be a real test of the people's will.
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