A general's path to democracy

One year after the coup, Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf promises a return to democratic rule in 2002.

Sajid Maqbool wipes the sweat from his forehead, pausing to recall his "most horrible experience ever," which he says convinced him that there was no justice in Pakistan for the poor.

Holding back tears, he points to the back of his left hand, scarred from a beating he took from three policemen.

On his way to Islamabad last year, the day laborer's bus was stopped at a roadside check post. The police "came inside and said they were searching for thieves, but they were really trying to collect bribes," says Mr. Maqbool. A policeman pulled his wallet out of Maqbool's top shirt pocket and took out all the cash he had, 60 rupees ($1.10) that he had saved for his return journey. After resisting, he was beaten.

Here at a different bus stop months later, there are no witnesses to verify Maqbool's story. But human rights activists claim that thousands of Pakistanis face similar brutalities at the hands of the country's notoriously corrupt police force every day. And it is Pakistanis like Maqbool who have the highest stake in the future of Gen. Pervez Musharraf's political reform plan.

One year ago today, General Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup after he was dismissed as Army chief of staff by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This week Musharraf pledged to return Pakistan to democratic rule by 2002.

An initiative known as the "devolution of power" plan promises to begin municipal elections - the lowest level - in December and complete them by July next year. The Supreme Court has ruled that Musharraf must relinquish power to an elected government within three years of the coup.

According to General Musharraf, "the basic issue is empowering the impoverished." He said that once there are new representatives elected from the lowest constituencies, known as the union councils, Pakistanis will find the government coming to their doorsteps. The reform plan aims to give more power to the union councils to decide their own policies on local development and administration. They would also be given power to monitor the work of the local police to prevent the kinds of excesses faced by people like Maqbool. Six of the seats on every 21-seat council will be reserved for women. The voting age will be lowered to 18.

Yet "every time a leader talks about a brand new system for the country, nobody takes interest because we have heard this before," says Maqbool, who has mixed views of the plan. "However, I do want to give General Musharraf at least the opportunity to prove himself right."

Politicians and analysts are more critical. Some have described the plan as a repeat of the past, when other military rulers have tried creating new political orders in the hope of winning support for their regimes. Others say that the plan is not workable because it's no guarantee that the country's political elite, who have dominated politics in the past, will not dominate in the future. (In the next election, Musharraf's plan requires all candidates to run as independents.) There's also criticism that in trying to reach out to the grass roots, the plan ignores the importance of Pakistan's four provinces, whose support for the center is essential in keeping the country stable.

"There are many areas where you in fact need to centralize functions rather than decentralize them by giving constituencies the opportunity to make choices," says political affairs columnist Rashid Rehman. He cites the example of a large, annual population-growth rate of more than 3 percent, which he says can best be tackled by a centralized national policy of birth control. At about 138 million, Pakistan is the world's seventh most-populous country.

Abida Hussain, Pakistan's former ambassador to the US and a leader of the Pakistan Muslim League - the party whose government was ousted in last year's coup - says, "Pakistan's former military leaders tried creating similar political orders in the shape of democracy…. Those experiments did not last beyond the rule of the regime which created them.

"The grand social change will only come for Pakistanis when democratic institutions are allowed to function and to become strong so that they can hold public servants responsible for their deeds."

Rehman adds that Pakistan, diverse to the point that each province has its own language, risks encouraging separatists and nationalists if it dilutes the concept of centralization. In the 53 years since Pakistan was created, the country has seen the emergence of separatist groups in three provinces. "You have to guard against the formidable problem of provincial nationalism, and the devolution plan is exactly the wrong way to do that," says Rehman.

Western diplomats say that while Musharraf is moved by a genuine desire to improve the lives of most Pakistanis, he is going about it the wrong way. "Rather than once again trying to create a new political order, it may be best for the general to revive the parliament that he suspended after the coup, and allow democratically elected politicians to decide how to manage the country," says a senior diplomat who asked not to be named. "But the devolution plan only intensifies the general's clash with the politicians, and it raises the danger that Pakistani nationalists may increase their campaigns against the center."

Maqbool perhaps best summarizes the ordeal facing many Pakistanis. "Everyone knows that Pakistan faces many problems, and many people want to see the general succeed. But nobody knows if he can succeed where others failed."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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