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January 19, 2008

The impeachment question

 
January 19, 2008

After more than eight years of absolute power, President General (r) Pervez Musharraf said last week that he will quit if the opposition parties tried to impeach him following the February 18 general elections. It is always unbelievable to hear from the President that he intends to step down in view of the efforts he has made all these years to stay in power. And those harbouring hopes that they would get rid of him through impeachment should curb their enthusiasm because this may never happen in Pakistan. Impeaching a former military ruler even if he has violated the constitution is next to impossible in a country that has been ruled directly for more than half of its life by army generals and indirectly for the rest.

In fact, another recent statement by the president should be enough to make us realize that he has his own peculiar way of looking at things and reaching conclusions. Claiming that he wasn't unpopular and still enjoyed support from the masses, the elite and the army, he remarked: "The day I think that I am genuinely unpopular, I will be the first to resign." He did concede though that his popularity has dropped. Honestly, one doesn't know as to when a credible mechanism was put in place to find out General Musharraf's popularity. And how do you judge that a leader is popular or unpopular? It has to be through a referendum, an election or any other democratic process. The method to judge the person's popularity must be free, fair and transparent. None of this can be imagined in President Musharraf's rule considering the fact that he doesn't believe in providing a level playing field to his opponents.

It was amusing to hear a lady teacher telling the president on his face in his weekly television programme telecast from the presidency that she watched helplessly as his supporters stamped hundreds of ballot papers in his favour during the infamous presidential referendum while on duty at a polling station in Islamabad. That is how his

popularity was judged and established!

If General (r) Musharraf really believes that he is still popular, why doesn't he follow the rules and seek election as president under the process defined by the constitution from new and properly elected assemblies. Why should he sack judges of superior courts who insist on the rule of law? Why does he have to order arrest of thousands of lawyers, political workers and civil society activists struggling for democracy and human rights? Why is he scared of the free media that is upholding the citizens' right to know the truth about happenings in their homeland? Only dictators far removed from reality resort to such extreme measures in a bid to maintain their grip on power.

The president made a similar claim about his popularity in a recent sitting with foreign journalists. Unlike their Pakistani counterparts, foreign journalists don't have to fear victimization at the hands of the government and are, therefore, blunt and critical while interacting with our rulers. Predictably, there were questions to the effect that the president had blood on his hands due to Benazir Bhutto's assassination during his rule. He was also reminded about his unpopularity. The president dismissed the first question by reminding the questioner that he wasn't a feudal or tribal to think of murdering someone. Feudals or tribals, many of whom are honourable people with values worth emulating, would surely be unhappy with that comment. Even otherwise, making such a sweeping statement condemning a whole group or community is wrong.

A more interesting part of the president's reply to the question was that foreign journalists don't go out into rural Pakistan where he enjoyed popularity. A reporter from the New York Times did travel to rural areas and found out reactions contrary to what the president believed. Other foreign reporters also know through their local contacts that the president's popularity has gone down and it is increasingly reflected in their writings. The sooner the president realized that he is unpopular the better it would be for him and the country. It would help him readjust his policies and take decisions that are in the national interest and not self-interest.

Returning to the issue of President Musharraf's impeachment, none of the opposition parties appear serious about it due to a host of factors. First, it has never happened in Pakistan and cannot be carried out in the prevailing situation when the just-out-of-uniform president still seems to enjoy the military's backing. Second, mustering two-thirds majority in parliament for undertaking impeachment proceedings against the president would be an uphill task. Third, such a move would destabilize the political system and even render the electoral exercise redundant. Most of our politicians are status quo-oriented and would like to work within the system instead of pulling it down. Some of them are publicly saying that the president should be facilitated to wriggle out of the tight situation in which he finds himself and offered an honourable exit. Obviously, the president and his allies would consider all this wishful thinking and impractical. Still any threat or even a hint of impeachment could strengthen the President's resolve to stay in power. There would also be the temptation to rig the elections and prevent the opposition from gaining two-thirds majority in parliament to nip in the bud any attempt to impeach the president.

Rather than frightening the president into taking measures that could further destabilize the country, every effort ought to be made to facilitate a smooth transfer of power in keeping with the popular will as reflected in the coming elections. Pakistan faced an almost similar predicament in late 1970s when President General Ziaul Haq had overthrown the government of the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by exploiting the political crisis at the time and was conspiring to eliminate the PPP founder by implicating him in a murder case. The late Wali Khan, known for his political sagacity and wit, commented on the situation by remarking that there was one grave and either General Ziaul Haq and Mr Bhutto would have to be buried in it. By this he meant that only one of them could survive as the general feared Bhutto would not spare him if he returned to power. One hopes this is not the case now, otherwise the political uncertainty that Pakistan has been facing since Mr Bhutto's judicial murder would continue to haunt us now that the list of martyrs in our country is growing with the latest addition being Benazir Bhutto Shaheed.



The writer is an executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email: [email protected]