Pakistan's step toward democracy under military rule

On Sunday, Pakistanis took the first step in electing candidates for local bodies.

Abid Khan had more on his mind this week than the defeat of his favorite candidate in Sunday's local elections in Pakistan.

"My friend lost in this election, but if the new system works better for Pakistan, I would be happy to support that," says Mr. Khan, who voted in Sargodha, one of 18 districts where elections were held giving Pakistanis their first taste of democracy under military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The Lahore bus driver says the elections may finally create a new political order that would improve the workings of the country's political institutions.

By recognizing the victory of a candidate other than his friend, Khan was breaking ranks from Pakistan's tradition of bitterly divisive elections.

He is just one of the approximately 9 million Pakistanis who were registered to vote this week.

If the country sees more political stability in the future, Pakistanis such as Khan would be willing to be more supportive of General Musharraf's political reforms, analysts say. But critics argue that the elections - where political parties have been sidelined - are yet another attempt by the military to consolidate its power.

"These elections are meant to bring in a new era, but the dilemma for the government is that the new order may not come about that easily," says Rashed Rehman, a prominent political-affairs columnist. "This is a military government whose own credibility by virtue of being a military regime, is questionable."

Mr. Rehman says the reform plan would eventually be overtaken by mainstream political parties, especially if they increasingly agitate against the military regime in the coming months.

The elections are the first step in the general's so-called "devolution of power" plan - a reference to reforming the political system by devolving power to the grass roots.

The interest in the elections fell short of expectations, with unofficial counts putting the voter turnout between 30 to 40 percent. Still, that is better than some of the worst turnouts in Pakistan's history, when less than 30 percent voted.

When Musharraf toppled the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999, he justified the takeover as an essential step to rid Pakistan of its "sham" democracy. It was a reference to a decade of scandals in which four governments were removed from office on corruption charges after democracy was restored in 1988 following an earlier military rule.

The Musharraf plan allows municipal bodies to take charge of areas that were previously denied to them, such as the power to impose local taxes, supervise the local police, and to plan local development projects, such as water-supply and sewerage lines.

Pakistan's two mainstream parties - the Pakistan People's Party, led by Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League of Mr. Sharif - have both rejected the elections on the grounds that it's an attempt by Musharraf to perpetuate his rule, although the general promised to step down by October next year, handing over power to an elected government.

What also sets these municipal and village elections apart are that of the 20,076 seats up for grabs over the next several months of voting, 3,822 seats have been set aside for women, a first in Pakistan's history.

"There's now an attempt to create a new order by bringing in new politicians in the name of devolution of power," says a former minister who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This would be an attempt to replace the old politicians."

But for Pakistanis such as Khan, it all comes down to basic issues of life: "I don't care who rules my constituency and if it's a political party or not," he says. "What matters is the quality of life for the poorest families, and it's too early to tell just yet how the new system will perform."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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