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Pakistan: History Reveals Fragile Democratic Institutions

  • Ron Synovitz

Pakistanis are voting today in a referendum that asks whether their self-declared president, General Pervez Musharraf, should stay in office for five more years. Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999. He is seeking a public mandate for his economic and political reforms, as well as for his support of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, including a crackdown against Islamic militants within Pakistan. RFE/RL examines today's vote in the context of Pakistan's historically fragile democratic institutions.

Prague, 30 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's self-declared president, General Pervez Musharraf, is widely expected to win a non-binding referendum today that asks whether he should stay in office for another five years.

If he wins a simple majority of today's vote, Musharraf would be able to say that he has a public mandate to continue economic and political reforms in his country. He would also be able to claim public support for his decision to cooperate in the U.S.-led campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

Musharraf said after casting his ballot today that voter turnout so far has been excellent and that he is confident he will receive such a mandate. "The leaders [who oppose me] only speak in drawing rooms. They have no public support. They should realize this now and take it easy."

There is nothing in the referendum that would require Musharraf to step down from power if he fails to win a majority of today's vote.

Professor Ghafoor Ahmed, deputy leader of Pakistan's main Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-i-Islami, says the referendum is unconstitutional because it essentially constitutes a direct election for the presidency. Ahmed argues that under Pakistan's constitution, only the parliament is empowered to elect the president.

"The entire nation has been opposing [this referendum] because there is no provision in the constitution to hold presidential elections. It's against the constitution. It's not legal," Ahmed said.

But Pakistan's Supreme Court last weekend ruled that the referendum is, indeed, legal under emergency provisions introduced after the October 1999 coup that brought Musharraf to power.

With opposition parties calling for a voter boycott, the final turnout is being closely watched as a measure of Musharraf's actual support in the country.

Musharraf's allies in Islamabad say they hope for a turnout of more than 30 percent of eligible voters -- a figure that many foreign observers have said would be credible among an electorate of about 70 million people.

Regardless of the turnout, Musharraf's opponents -- particularly the fundamentalist Islamic parties targeted by his political reforms -- are unwilling to recognize a president who is not elected by the legislature in accordance with the country's constitution. For now, however, the legislature has been disbanded under Musharraf's orders. He has promised to conduct general elections by October.

Developments in Pakistan throughout its 54-year history show the fragility of its democratic institutions and the strength of the military and intelligence communities there. Indeed, Pakistan has experienced four military coups since 1947.

In the late 1970s, Pakistan's military leaders were unhappy about Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's administration. Bhutto was executed in April 1979 after a coup led by then-army chief of staff General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

It was Zia's attempt to bolster the popularity of his military regime that led to Islamabad's initial support for fundamentalist Islamists inside Pakistan.

It also was upon Zia's advice that Washington funneled most of its military aid for Afghan mujahedin fighters during the 1980s to the guerrilla leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Today, Hekmatyar is seen by Washington as an anti-Western extremist who could threaten the stability of Afghanistan's post-Taliban political transition.

After Zia was killed in a 1988 air crash that has never been explained, fresh elections brought Bhutto's daughter -- Benazir Bhutto -- to power in Pakistan. It was her administration that supported the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan -- partly as an attempt to remove the roadblocks of rival warlords in post-Soviet Afghanistan along the highway that links southern Pakistan to Central Asia via Kandahar and Herat.

Corruption allegations involving Bhutto's husband, named as Pakistan's investment minister, ultimately led to the defeat of her government in an election that brought Punjabi businessman Nawaz Sharif to power.

But complaints of corruption only grew stronger under Sharif's government, ultimately leading to the bloodless coup that brought Musharraf to power.

Initially, the United States and other Western states saw Musharraf's seizure of power as a step backward for democracy. Those concerns were compounded by the fact that Pakistan had become nuclear-capable by the late 1990s. When then-U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Pakistan in March 2000, he refused to shake hands with Musharraf in front of television cameras.

Washington's policies generally characterized Musharraf as a dictator who supported fundamentalist terrorists in both Afghanistan and Kashmir and who was not moving quickly enough on his promise to restore democracy by conducting democratic elections.

All that changed after the terrorist attacks of 11 September in the United States. When Musharraf announced his support for the U.S.-led campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Washington began to portray Musharraf as a moderate leader who was trying to reform his country in the face of strong domestic political pressure -- from both the opposition militant Islamic political parties and from the hard-line Islamic generals who were his own supporters.

In this context, today's referendum could allow Musharraf to claim legitimate power. While some international observers say a strong turnout in support of Musharraf would lend credibility to his rule, few agree it can be legitimized by today's simple "yes" or "no" vote.

Hraie Balian is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's top election official. Balian told RFE/RL that it is questionable whether such a referendum is appropriate for a coup leader like Musharraf who was never elected in the first place.

"We've faced this situation of a referendum extending a presidential term in OSCE [member countries], but always for presidents who have been elected in the first place -- in some cases not at all in a fair election. But nonetheless, the referendum followed an election. And [the referenda were] extending the terms of an elected official. I have questions in my mind, at least, whether this is the proper way [for Musharraf] to do it," Balian said.

Although Pakistan is not a member of the OSCE, Balian said in general terms that Musharraf's presidency would gain more credibility both at home and abroad if he followed Pakistan's normal constitutional processes.

That would first entail the parliamentary elections that Musharraf has promised to conduct by October, followed by a vote in the legislature on the presidency.