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Prospects for Democracy in Pakistan Appear Dim

Sumita Kumar is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 19, 2006

    The pro-democracy, anti-Musharraf movement launched by the combined opposition in May 2006 will once again put on trial the strength and determination of the people of Pakistan to snatch power from the clutches of the military. The Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), a conglomerate of 15 parties, has demanded the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz by July 31, 2006, failing which a vote of no-confidence would be moved against the Musharraf regime. The demand was made in a resolution adopted by the Alliance on July 2. Earlier, on May 25, the ARD components endorsed the Charter of Democracy issued by the two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in London on May 14, 2006.

    The ARD resolution threatened that the opposition parties would fight for "undiluted democracy", "a vibrant opposition", "a cooperative federation" and "maximum provincial autonomy in the ambit of the 1973 Constitution". How far the opposition succeeds in these objectives will hinge on whether its components will forget past differences and work together. The Charter, after all, was the culmination of efforts over more than a year, starting with Benazir Bhutto's Jeddah meeting with Nawaz Sharif in February 2005.

    While there is an apparent unanimity of goals among the mainstream opposition parties, there are solid contradictions among them as well. These contradictions emanate from the differing ideologies, deep mutual mistrust and competing party interests. Differences between the PPP (People's Party Parliamentarians) and the PML(N) (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) have already surfaced on the basis that while the PML(N) would not mind co-operation with the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal), the PPP leadership is quite allergic to the idea of working with the religious parties. At the same time, doubts persist as to whether Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif can resist any overtures made to them by General Musharraf, which could lure them into unseemly compromises. There are already allegations made by the PML(Q) that Benazir Bhutto had been in touch with Musharraf. Some ARD constituents like the ANP (Awami National Party) have also expressed disillusionment with the Charter. ANP President Asfandyar Wali Khan pointed out that the Charter did not "guarantee" provincial autonomy.

    These contradictions are compounded by the posture adopted by the leadership of MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement), a coalition partner with the PML(Q) at the centre. On the one hand, the MQM leadership has said that it gives no assurances about supporting President Musharraf's re-election, but on the other the MQM chief Altaf Hussain has rejected the Charter of Democracy. While the Pakistan Oppressed Nations' Movement (PONM) has agreed to join the ARD and the MMA in a joint movement against military rule, its President Mahmood Khan Achakzai has acknowledged that PONM has differences on political issues with the PPP and the PML(N).

    MMA's support for the anti-government campaign can be traced to its woes with respect to the functioning of the military regime. MMA's disregard for the military regime started soon after General Musharraf refused to demit the office of the Chief of Army Staff by December 31, 2004 in violation of his agreement with it on the 17th Amendment. The anger with respect to the situation in Balochistan, military operations in Waziristan, and increasing anti-US sentiment have aggravated relations between the two. However, its differences with the ARD as well as its own internal contradictions will determine whether the MMA will be a viable factor in the campaign against Musharraf. While MMA President Qazi Hussain Ahmad stated that the party fully supported all the contents of the Charter of Democracy, its Secretary-General Maulana Fazlur Rehman has admitted to having reservations on a number of aspects of the Charter. Qazi Hussain stated that the option of resigning from the assemblies could be exercised and proposed an election boycott by his party. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, on the other hand, said that the alliance did not want to boycott elections. Both have stressed the importance of a joint campaign to dislocate the military government, though the modalities of the proposed movement have still not been agreed upon. While there is no doubt that the MMA can be counted upon to galvanise enough street power to pressurize the Musharraf government, it remains to be seen whether it would be comfortable in ceding ground to the mainstream parties, which would directly diminish its own political space.

    The success of a no-confidence motion against President Musharraf would depend on a two-thirds majority in a joint session of both houses of Parliament. At the same time, while certain legal cases against both Benazir and Nawaz keep them away from the country, there is no certainty whether they would be willing to return, court arrest and inspire mass agitations in the manner the leaders in Nepal did.

    While President Musharraf's displeasure with the Charter was made known in his statement that it was an attempt on the part of the two leaders to "save their own future and re-enter power corridors," the standoff between him and the opposition parties is nowhere near convergence. To all intents and purposes, it seems that the movement for democracy at this moment is weak, has not picked up momentum, and will give enough leeway to President Musharraf to manipulate the system and stay in power.