Pakistan: democracy in the doldrums

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As I write this, the generals have been in control for a fortnight, and have decided to run the show without civilian intermediaries. Seizing power was the easy bit. Deciding what to do with it will be harder. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: There are no easy options.

I've often thought Pakistan must be one of the most ungovernable states in the world. Over the years, institutions have been destroyed by successive rulers to such an extent that achieving power has little to do with governing effectively. This breakdown began early in Pakistan's brief history, and has now virtually paralyzed the entire system.

While there are roads, schools, and hospitals, the skills and institutional support needed to run the infrastructure have been eradicated through nepotism and corruption. Any progress in this country has been due largely to individual initiative.

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Pakistanis have been unable to develop a consensus about most of the basic issues. While lip service is paid to Urdu as a national language, the official language remains English, and the elite still send their children to private English language schools. The resulting two-track system has widened the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

Successive governments have shied away from defusing the population bomb, and now we have one of the world's highest growth rates. Having added 110 million Pakistanis to the 35 million counted in the 1951 census, we should not be surprised to find that rampant unemployment has swollen the ranks of ethnic and religious militias, which have turned Pakistan into a powder keg.

But the most dangerous trend is the complete devaluation of the state's writ. In the people's minds, there are no longer checks and balances to curb the power of the influential. Far too often the lines are blurred between the interests of the government and the rulers.

Rules are followed and laws obeyed simply out of fear of getting caught. This fear has evaporated among the well-connected, who know they won't be prosecuted. So people such as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his henchmen default on bank loans and evade taxes on a massive scale (nonperforming loans in Pakistan total $4 billion, and tax evasions are perhaps worse), bringing the economy to the verge of collapse.

While I oppose military rule, I must confess it is hard to defend the likes of Mr. Sharif and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Both have frittered away innumerable opportunities to give this benighted country decent governance, and both have created the void necessary for the Army to retain its central position in Pakistan.

In nearly 12 years of elected civilian rule, neither managed to prove to Pakistanis that democracy is superior to dictatorship. This is why nobody is shedding a tear for the sacked Sharif government, just as nobody lamented the dismissal of Ms. Bhutto's government three years ago.

To be fair, even if these incompetent and greedy politicians had been models of integrity and good management, the problems Pakistan faces today are so big they probably would not have made much headway in solving them.

Equally, the Army certainly has no magic wand. Our long and painful experience of military rule indicates that its officers are even less equipped than our pathetic politicians to tackle national problems. If past military regimes appear less corrupt and more competent than elected civilian governments, it is because they were not subjected to the same media scrutiny as political leaders. Operating under tight censorship, their crooked deals and bungling escaped the public gaze.

Perhaps the saddest part of recent events is how little resentment there has been over the coup. For all the years under the jackboot of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, thousands of Pakistanis demonstrated against martial law, went to jail, and were flogged.

If there is a consensus on anything in this deeply divided country, it is on the merits of democracy. And yet, today the Army chief can order the takeover of state institutions and dismissal of an elected, constitutional government without worrying about public outcry or backlash.

For this state of apathy, both Sharif and Bhutto share the blame. In each of their respective two-term stints they failed to deliver on a single promise. All they did was feather their nests and allow their creatures to fatten themselves at the trough of the public exchequer. Neither cared a fig for democratic norms.

I would guess that the Army is extremely reluctant to declare martial law and abrogate the Constitution. Its high command knows it has no answers to Pakistan's innumerable problems.

The generals would therefore prefer to stay in the background and have a government of so-called technocrats in an open-ended caretaker arrangement. Elections will be deferred until both mainstream parties are subjected to thorough accountability.

Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, the Army chief of staff, has announced he will head a seven-member national security council consisting of service heads and four civilians, which will run the country.

This pushes elections, and a return to civilian rule, into the distance. Yet it has been largely welcomed by a public willing to wait for a return to democracy if the Army will deliver on its promises.

This arrangement will be no worse than that of these past years. Alas, the only people who will squeal in protest will be the out-of-work politicians who will be thrown off the gravy train.

*Irfan Husain is a freelance writer living in Karachi, Pakistan. This article first appeared in Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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