The enlightened coup

October 29, 2020

This month marked 21 years since General Musharraf toppled the heavily-mandated Muslim League government led by an increasingly assertive and aspiring Ameer ul Momineen in Nawaz Sharif. In a script...

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This month marked 21 years since General Musharraf toppled the heavily-mandated Muslim League government led by an increasingly assertive and aspiring Ameer ul Momineen in Nawaz Sharif. In a script that we have become all too familiar with, Musharraf promised to rid the political system of ‘corrupt’ politicians and introduce ‘real’ democracy in the country.

While the saviour complex was evident in the delight of our urban elites, the irony of a coup-making uniformed general teaching Pakistanis lessons in democracy was not lost on an insignificant minority. As always, the late Asma Jahangir was at the forefront of denouncing yet another assault on an elected government, even as many opportunistic politicians welcomed the general with open arms. It was only when he began to systematically tear down the political order that they realised the folly of their ways. Recent events provide demonstrable evidence that our politicians continue to fail to learn from history.

To blunt the popular parties, Musharraf introduced a clause that stated that members of legislative assemblies had to be graduate degree holders from accredited universities in order to contest elections. According to one report, this clause resulted in disqualifying 41 percent of politicians who had been elected in the previous parliament, leading to the assertion that these changes were politically motivated. With PML-N and PPP leaders in exile, this cleared all hurdles for Musharraf to formulate a system of his choosing.

Before supporters of his rule start lauding this move as a step towards promoting an educated class of legislators, it bears reminding that holders of certificates from religious institutions were given an equivalent status to undergraduate degree holders even though the madressah system was not aligned with the mainstream.

The 2002 elections engineered an unprecedented win for the coalition of religious parties as they formed governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan for the first time in the country’s history. This allowed the MMA to make these provinces a hub of religious extremism in the wake of the 9/11 bombings.

The resultant increase in militancy and extremism in Pakistan was a direct outcome of these rigged elections, as the MMA was known to have a soft corner for the Taliban. Though Musharraf’s intention was to thwart the PML-N and PPP’s effort at re-establishing power, he managed to achieve something that even Zia could not – allotting a more influential presence to Islamist groups in Pakistan’s politics. To cement his hold on power, the subservient king’s party of electables joined hands with the MMA to legitimise Musharraf’s rule through the LFO.

At the municipal level, much in line with Ayub’s ‘Basic Democracies’, Musharraf introduced his ‘nazims’ system of local government. Political parties and the civil bureaucracy were side-lined as he claimed to advance a new generation of leaders.

The entrenchment of military control over civil departments flourished with over a thousand military officers inducted into civilian posts, most at strategic ministries.

The foundations of NAB’s political witch-hunts and selective accountability were laid from its inception. Launched with much fanfare to cleanse the political system, the bureau was headed by former military personnel who used it to suppress opposing politicians. Moreover, irregularities in the military’s financial dealings continued unchecked.

Many supporters also reminisce about his ‘wonderful’ management of the economy, where the regime succeeded in bringing about stability and GDP growth largely due to the inflow of aid after 9/11 and the writing off of foreign debts. For instance, the IMF provided a poverty-reduction loan of $1.3 billion to be utilised over a three-year period and also rescheduled over $12 billion of debt. This not only provided significant budgetary relief to the country but also enabled it to build up foreign-exchange reserves.

US aid figures ran up to nearly $20 billion over the five-year period after 9/11, which included provisions for reimbursement of military expenditures and weapons up-gradation for the war, budgetary support to pay off debts and developmental assistance relating to food and humanitarian aid. Without the largesse of the US and IFIs, the regime would not have managed to record such tremendous gains. Once again, matters of geopolitical importance aided in stabilising Pakistan’s economy under a military ruler.

However, the extent to which the regime’s economic policies were successful in alleviating poverty is disputable. According to government reports, Pakistan’s economy grew at 7 percent during 2006-07, and maintained an average growth rate of 7.5 percent over the four-year period from 2003-07. This translated into a per capita GDP growth rate of 5.2 percent in 2006-07, maintaining an average growth of 5.5 percent over the same four-year period. The same report indicates that the percentage of population living below the poverty line was reduced from approximately 35 percent in 2001 to 24 percent in 2005, with rural poverty declining by just over 11 percent.

However, independent reports refute this claim.

The Human Development Report cited 33 percent of the population as living below the poverty line in its 2005 analysis, and highlighted the extreme disparity in distribution of income between the poorest and richest segments of the society. Similarly, a 2007 World Bank report cited 35 million Pakistanis living in rural areas as being affected by poverty, which represented 80 percent of the country’s poor. This means that 44 million or approximately 30 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, with a majority constituting rural agrarian poor.

Clearly, while Musharraf’s credit-financed, consumption-based economic model may have increased GDP growth rates and foreign-exchange reserves, it had a marginal effect on reducing poverty and heightened income disparity levels.

Socio-politically, the regime exacerbated ethnic tensions and clamped down on the press and judiciary. Development projects launched in resource-rich Balochistan failed to provide any representation or benefits to the locals, infuriating the Baloch. Refusing to address grievances, the regime undertook a typically heavy-handed response by launching an army operation in 2006.

The assassination of Akbar Bugti aggravated tensions between the centre and the province, with the result that even today there are a number of insurgents calling for Baloch nationalism. The instability in the province provided an opportunity for militants to expand their role.

Despite purporting to be a believer in the freedom of the media, Musharraf had a low tolerance for criticism. Undoubtedly, unprecedented autonomy was awarded to the media in his early years, as scores of television channels opened up. However, once the electronic and print media became critical of his policies, he responded by curbing that freedom through the introduction of the ‘defamation’ law of 2002 and the Pemra Ordinance. No criticism of the regime was tolerated with channels being regularly blocked and newspapers denied advertisement revenues through a ban on government advertising.

Musharraf’s last major assault on a state pillar also precipitated his eventual downfall. His dismissal of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in 2007 motivated people from different walks of life to launch a movement for his restoration and for Musharraf’s ouster.

Nominally twelve years forward, we appear to remain stuck in time. Even today, our federal cabinet comprises at least a dozen remnants of Musharraf’s government. We have a civilian head of government, but all eyes still turn towards the permanent power centres for major decisions. In fact, this hybrid model of governance is glorified by those beholden to its beneficence.

Once again, the media is being repressed, the opposition is being hounded and the economy is in doldrums. Once again, a broad coalition is rising. The headiness of power blinds even the most clear-headed. Nothing lasts forever; but who among the current crop is even cognisant of this inevitability?

The writer works as a development practitioner for a local consultancy.

Twitter: ShahrukhNR



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