Yet another coup

Military dictators have ruled Pakistan most of the time since its birth in 1947. General Pervez Musharraf, the present military ruler, had usurped power in 1999 through a coup against an elected government. The façade of democracy put up through a constitution framed, and the parliamentary elections held, under military auspices came unstuck after Musharraf, on Saturday, imposed a state of emergency — in Pakistan’s context, it is virtually martial law — in the face of a serious threat to his power, now from the apex court. The emergency, unsurprisingly, included media curbs, ban on public gatherings and arrest of opposition leaders. He suspended the constitution and replaced chief justice Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had led a powerful mass movement against him earlier this year. The court was reported likely to declare illegal Musharraf’s candidacy, not merely his controversial Oct. 6 re-election, in which he bagged 98 per cent of the votes through opposition boycott. He had promised to step down as army chief by Nov. 15 if re-elected.

Pakistan’s allies such as the US were ‘deeply dismayed’ or expressed ‘grave concern’ over this ‘setback for democracy’, calling for a swift return to a constitutional government. Musharraf’s step has put in doubt both the parliamentary elections due in January and the power-sharing deal he is reported to have made, at US nudging, with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned from exile two weeks ago. Musharraf, in his midnight address to the nation, blamed both the judiciary and Islamic extremism for ‘destabilisation’, which according to him, compelled him to take the drastic step of saving Pakistan from ‘suicide’. This year Musharraf has faced court challenges, street protests, particularly from the lawyers, and growing Islamic violence. For the present, Musharraf has overcome

his legal problem, but the wider implications of his action are likely to make things hotter for him in the days to come, including the probability of stronger domestic opposition.

But the question is whether the emergency will give Musharraf a new lease of life. One of the important determining factors is the attitude of Pakistan’s Western allies, particularly the US. Mere statements of protest or regret will not absolve them of their responsibility, nor will such considerations as Musharraf’s being a key ally in the furtherance of US strategic interests in this part of the world. Democracy and the rule of law should not be defended or ignored according to powerful nations’ vested interests. If it were right to apply heavy pressure, including sanctions, to Burma and some other countries in the name of democracy and human rights, it would be wrong to condone or rationalise their violations in Pakistan. Whatever the Western nations may choose to do, there is no guarantee whatsoever that Musharraf would achieve his stated objectives of bringing violence and Islamic extremism, particularly pro-Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militancy, under control, and arrest Pakistan’s lurch into anarchism. On the contrary, there is a danger of the situation getting worse, as a number of Pakistan experts reckon.