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Trying to make sense out of Pakistan

Posted By Shariq On 8th October, 2007 @ 11:13 am In Current affairs, South Asia, Pakistan | 20 Comments

Benazir Bhutto was a corrupt Prime Minister. Nawaz Sharif was a corrupt Prime Minister. Yet I support allowing both of them to come back to Pakistan and take part in the political system, providing that the Army maintains a strong presence and Musharraf is allowed to continue as President with the power to dismiss the elected government.

My main reason for holding this position is that both and Nawaz have political support in Pakistan. If free and fair elections are held in Pakistan, their parties will win the majority of seats. If they aren’t allowed to take part, then an increase in the power of the religious parties is inevitable.

The Threat of the Mullah’s

This isn’t idle speculation. Over the past 5 years the political support of the religious parties has steadily increased and not of all that can be attributed to Musharraf’s support for the war on terror. If you take away the genuine civilian options, people are more likely to turn to the mosque for their politics.

This is essentially what has happened in Egypt. Successive dictatorships have resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood becoming the main opposition. Now Egypt is in a very difficult position because if it does hold free elections, the religious parties will win and enter government in a position of strength. If the military tries to get rid of them then you run the risk of a devastating civil war as happened in Algeria. Luckily Pakistan hasn’t reached this situation yet and so this can still be averted.

There is a school of thought which believes that the democrats and the military have had their turn, so the religious parties deserve a chance to run the country as well. I profoundly disagree with this point of view.

The religious parties have had a chance to run the NWFP and seem intent in turning the province into Afghanistan under the Taliban. You could make say that if the religious parties were ruling the country they would be forced to moderate their positions. Unfortunately all you have to do is look to Iran to see that this position is indefensible. Religious parties can’t be relied upon to moderate when they reach power. They have to be reconstructed before they get a chance to get power as they have been in Turkey.

This isn’t to say that they should be banned. I’m confident that if they are just one of many legitimate parties competing for votes they won’t be that successful. Pakistan like most Muslim countries isn’t an intrinsically fundamentalist nation.

Pragmatism over Idealism

Admittedly a lot of the civilian political support is based on some very unsavoury feudal power. However if three powerful military dictators have been unable to break the power of the landlords, change can only come from within. It is unlikely to happen anytime soon and so is an unfortunate political reality which has to be accepted.

There is a tendency when looking at Pakistan to over reach when trying to assess what’s best for the country and underestimating the advantage of stability. Over the past five years, there have definitely been improvements in the Pakistani economy. There have also been positive developments such as the growth of the independent television media. What’s crucial is preserving these gains rather than aiming for a ‘clean’ government, free of corruption and without the presence of the old, tainted leaders.

The best way of this happening is for the political parties to freely contest the political scene, but with the threat of the army and Musharraf to dismiss the government if things start going too far of track. Yes there will be some corruption, and the army budget will remain grotesquely high but things will tick along. Maybe in five or ten years the political system will be mature enough to start tackling issues such as health care and education.

Concerns with the Current Situation

This isn’t to say that the way things are shaping out don’t have their dangers. Probably the biggest problem is that the Musharraf/Benazir alliance won’t stop people going towards the religious parties because its a stitch up. This is why I would have preferred Nawaz Sharif to be allowed back as well, although that situation is slightly more complicated because Musharraf’s party is essentially made up of people who defected from Nawaz’s party.

The other big concern is whether Musharraf will be able to hold onto the constitutional clause which he reinserted, which allows the president to sack the government and call for fresh elections. If he isn’t, the balance of power which would shift too far in favour of the politicians and the country would most probably go back to square zero, with another coup in five to ten years time.

Please Don’t Talk About Imran Khan!

I’d like to briefly deal the role Imran Khan has to play in all of this as he is quite popular amongst a lot of expats. In my opinion this support is misplaced as he might have some decent policies, but he isn’t a very good politician and doesn’t have any political support. Supporting him is no different to supporting someone like Shaukat Aziz or even Asma Jehangir. Well intentioned but ultimately meaningless. If Imran really wanted to do something, he would have been the one who made a deal with Musharraf.


I think that Musharraf had an excellent chance to put the country somewhere along the Turkish model if he had gone to the Presidency a lot earlier. If not after 3 years in power, than definitely after 5. He was much more popular at the time and would have exerted greater control over the politicians. Unfortunately the last few months have been a mess, in particular the undermining of the Supreme Court. This wasn’t helpful considering its the same Supreme Court which has stopped the government in the North West Frontier Province from introducing Shariah law.

As it is, Musharraf might still might have a chance but the situation is definitely a lot more precarious. For Pakistan’s sake, hopefully things work out.


I urge everyone to read this essay by Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy:

[1] Between imperialism and Islamism

Its the most brilliant piece of writing I’ve read in a long time.

20 Comments To "Trying to make sense out of Pakistan"

#1 Comment By Ismaeel On 8th October, 2007 @ 1:56 pm

So let’s get this straight, we can’t allow a political party to win an election because we don’t like what it may do once in power despite that being the will of the majority of the people. On the other hand we favour a military dictator who has spent several years killing, imprisioning and disappearing his own people.

So the old cold war strategies of supporting the “liberal” dictator against the “revloutionary” people are alive and well then.

#2 Comment By Ismaeel On 8th October, 2007 @ 1:57 pm

Progressive politics at it’s best

#3 Comment By Leon On 8th October, 2007 @ 2:09 pm

Pragmatic politics and a depressingly realist view of the situation in that country…

#4 Comment By Anas On 8th October, 2007 @ 2:13 pm

The threat of the mullah’s what?

#5 Comment By Sofia On 8th October, 2007 @ 2:20 pm

right so benazir and nawaz are corrupt..meaning musharraf isn’t??? Pakistani politics is a series of depressing dictatorships and coups…how can you talk of democracy and then army powers in the same sentence?

#6 Comment By Katherine On 8th October, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

“providing that the Army maintains a strong presence and Musharraf is allowed to continue as President with the power to dismiss the elected government”

Maybe I’m missing something, but what possible justification could there be for this?

#7 Comment By Katherine On 8th October, 2007 @ 2:28 pm

I mean, I’ve read the “pragmatism over idealism” bit, but I just do not buy the idea that having the military looming over everything can be a good thing for restoring democracy. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that that idea is the very antithesis of democracy.

#8 Comment By The Common Humanist On 8th October, 2007 @ 2:28 pm

I rather suspect government by religious authority might be a whole lot worse - particularly if you are a women or a non muslim, or even the wrong sort of muslim.

Corruption dogs NON-democratic* government everywhere - the saying goes in Tehran - ‘If its a Mercedes, its a Mullah’.

Everyone should worry about Pakistan. The last thing the world needs is another armed to the teeth theocracy.

*By that I mean accountable, transparent and derives its legitimacy from a regularly obtained mandate for a party (as in the UK and much of Europe) or a Presidential System (ala USA etc etc etc). I think Pakistan fails on much of the minuitae of all three and I don’t see that improving with Mullahs, more Generals or former PMs.

#9 Comment By The Common Humanist On 8th October, 2007 @ 2:34 pm

Taliban-esque Government with all its attendant hatred and violence towards women


Military Government which whilst manifestly not deomcratic might be better then the option above.

Surely there has to be a better way?

#10 Comment By Sunny On 8th October, 2007 @ 2:48 pm

Yup, agree with you Shariq.

Ismaeel, unsurprisingly, says: So let’s get this straight, we can’t allow a political party to win an election because we don’t like what it may do once in power despite that being the will of the majority of the people.

Which political party do you mean? If you mean the religious parties, firstly there is no widespread desire to get them into power. They win about 10% of the vote. Shariq quite rightly points out that they usually become popular when the people have no alternative between them and a dictatorship. So there should be free elections.

#11 Comment By shariq On 8th October, 2007 @ 3:00 pm

I thought this piece get some hostile reaction. Let me try and deal with some of the points.

Ishmaeel: I never said we can’t allow a political party to win elections. A lot of the article is about ensuring that we don’t reach a situation whereby a religious party becomes the only viable opposition. The 7th para explicitly says this. To reiterate, I don’t think the religious parties will win elections if a civilian government is re-established.

Sophia: Of course the army is corrupt as well. However if you leave control only with the politicians in Pakistan, democracy is meaningless. The absence of press freedom, illegal action against political opposition and general corruption have all been as bad if not worse during civilian rule in Pakistan.

Katherine: I’ll point you towards Turkey. The army has staged 3 coups and has been looming over the country since 1960. Yet right now, Turkey has a realistic chance of joining the European Union.

I don’t see the military presence as permanent. However, without some checks and balances democracy is meaningless and often counter-productive.

One of the reasons I wasn’t as optimistic about Musharraf as others was because he never seriously thought about putting in checks to his own power. This has become obvious now with the way in which he has treated the Supreme Court.

However, and this answers the question Common Humanist raised about their being a better alternative, paradoxically you can only achieve stability if the army/president feels confident in removing the government and calling for new elections without having to form a military dictatorship.

#12 Comment By Sofi On 8th October, 2007 @ 3:00 pm

to put it simply, pakistan’s politics must be in a dire state given “deals” and talks are in progress with an ex leader who’s been accused of corruption ten fold. its all very farcical.

i understand corruption exists in every echelon of pakistani politics and choosing betwen democracy (given the democratic contenders) and miltary rule(in general) is like someone being stuck between a rock and a hard place. neither do i wish pakistan to be under religious rule (taleban*2?).

erm..ho hum?

perhaps pakistan does need a fresh faced, well intentioned, baby to politics - like imran khan who can, on the face, have some power while mr musharaf can control the strings behind the scenes? because lets face it, musharaf doesnt seem to want to reliquish power any time soon. maybe a newbie like I.K needs to be given a chance?

#13 Comment By Sofi On 8th October, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

btw i forgot to add your article was a good read, shariq

#14 Comment By Sofia On 8th October, 2007 @ 3:11 pm

can someone please explain why BB got the option to share power but not NS…is this about who was more america friendly? or the fear musharraf has for NS??

#15 Comment By Sofia On 8th October, 2007 @ 3:11 pm

Shariq, point taken re: army

#16 Comment By Sofi On 8th October, 2007 @ 3:23 pm

[2] http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/article3038411.ece
“The US and Britain have been involved helping “facilitate” the deal that will see Ms Bhutto return to Pakistan from exile in Britain”

im hoping i can link articles, sunny? if not..apologies!

#17 Comment By AsifB On 8th October, 2007 @ 4:15 pm

Shariq in (11) you say “A lot of the article is about ensuring that we don’t reach a situation whereby a religious party becomes the only viable opposition.”

Given the tyrannical tendencies of ‘religious’ politicians in the sub-continent, your sentiment is understandable. But how on earth can any deal/facilitation involving Musharaff and Bhutto end happily?

Haven’t these two already had enough time in power to discredit themselves - and jihaidists would say by association - the notion of military and/or secular party competence as rulers…Will not appointing them only add fuel for those who want to weave conspiracies about “America conspiring to destroy Islam/Pakistan” ?

Moreover, if your aim is to limit fundamentalist influence, Musharraff and Bhutto (like Zia and Bhutto the war criminal father before them) all rode the tiger’s back of accommodating huddod laws and discriminatory rhetoric from the fringe religous party wishlists. And all have failed to repeal fedual, tribal, military ISI and jihadist gains when in power?

So it’s depressing and more than a little concerning that the ‘best on offer’ to the people of Pakistan are M and B?

If you really want to liberate the ‘inticicially non-fundamentalist’ people of Pakistan, why not get some clean new names to ’set a good example’ for democracy and liberalism?

#18 Comment By shariq On 8th October, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

Asif B, you raise very valid points. In fact I’m probably more optimistic than I should be.

I think the thing which gives me hope is the positive developments which have taken place over the last few years, in particular the tv media and the economy. I get the sense that if these gains can just be consolidated for a few years, Pakistan will have a platform from which to move on to bigger and better things.

If you compare it to where it was 10 years ago, there is no realistic threat of a war with India, which would be disastrous and the support of the War on Terror has meant that a lot of the crippling national debt has been forgiven.

The only problems with the new names approach is that I don’t think they’ll be able to do anything given the structural problems in Pakistan such as the feudal problem and the influence of the army.

What I think will happen is that they’ll just succeed in creating hope which will be impossible to live up to and reduce further confidence in democracy. Whereas with B and M, at least we’ll know not to expect great things. Besides, its not as if a charismatic young turk has risen to challenge Benazir’s position in the PPP.
It seems that the subcontinent can’t escape from dynastic politics.

What I do agree with you completely on is I don’t see whatever government is put in place in the next couple of years being able to successfully deal with things such as the hudood ordinances. That will have to wait.

#19 Comment By Ali B. On 8th October, 2007 @ 11:10 pm

Good read, Shariq. I’ll have to agree with you on most, if not all, the points you’ve mentioned. And I’d actually like to go further, and this from something I have noticed personally in the past four years in Pakistan: the power of the feudals has actually decreased significantly. It might not be visible in the assemblies where all the parliamentarian needs is a simple majority to reach but every year, the simple majority has been harder to achieve.

This has had several reasons: even as education standards have not increased, the use of computers, televisions and cell phones in the rural poor (or at least the rural who are close to some urban centers) has decreased their informational dependence on their feudal lords. They might still be intimidated by the stick, but the feudal lord knows that he has to provide a better carrot as well. (This spread of knowledge should eventually spread further from these rural/urban neighbourhoods to relatively rural ones due to family and other ties).

Secondly, within the feudal lords, there is greater competition, we are decades away from the British Khansahabs’ appointments so the natural leader of a region is no longer assumed to be the traditional leader. Left, right and center, the politician with the traditional upper hand is being challenged not by the people who vote for him but by the elite who support him. This pressure has been added to by the current regime’s practice of finding any way possible to break the stranglehold of anyone that disagrees with their chosen path of govt. No less significant is the jealousy of siblings, cousins, family members to the assumed rights of the current holders of power.

Thirdly, and by no means is this list final, as new generations of feudal families are educated in western-style schools and colleges (and often studying abroad), their own ‘brainwashing’, so to speak, against the hand that feeds them means that sooner or later these men and women will have to ask themselves some hard questions.

Now, to the actual content of your article, every government needs some checks and balances. It is wrong to assume that every government’s method of this will be the same. In Turkey, the government is checked by the military; in the US it is not only the Judiciary but also the states that prevent the Federal govt from taking too much power in its own hands. In other countries, we have a thriving free press. In Pakistan which only recently has discovered a free press outside the written word, and with few established institutions (and one decision by the Supreme Court does not make it an institution that will necessarily weather the next storm), the only ones a Pakistani can depend upon are the politicians and generals, regardless of where their loyalties lie. If these two must exist compete while other institutions have time to grow, so be it. At least, it won’t be just one or the other taking stabs at these nascent institutions not allowing them to grow.

#20 Comment By asad On 9th October, 2007 @ 2:26 am


i fully agree that a religious government would be disastrous. it’ll just be difficult to stomach more of bhutto.

but the question is, really: how will the next pm/government enter power? will it be through a free election, or will it be via negotiations with the president-general (who will, hopefully, no longer be a general by then)? and can we then rely on the new government and the army to allow pakistan some political space where it’s most important: outside government?

though this army-government balance of power does seem to have worked in turkey, it must be in large part because of their particular history. the role played by the army in founding the republic and revolutionising the country, even their very culture, makes it more symbolic an institution to turks than the pakistani army is to most pakistanis, i would say. for another thing, the turkish army is conscripted, while the pakistani army is widely seen as the province of the country’s ‘military classes.’ i think this more closely ties the turkish army to turks and distances the pakistani one from pakistanis.

so, to have the army in the background of pakistani government, as an independent institution - with no popular participation in its shape or policies - would be highly unsettling. who would check the army’s power? to whom would it be accountable? and how quickly would people come to resent the army for interfering? [these are just random questions i’m thinking about by the way. i don’t mean it to seem as if i’m demanding answers =)]

as far as these gains go - in terms of the media and the economy - i’m slightly skeptical. it’s clear that much wealth has been created, but i think it’s just as clear that it has been created, almost exclusively, within the top few sections of a highly stratified society.

from the exposure i’ve had to both the media and the economy over the past few years, i sense that the urban, educated, well-to-do - precisely those who are, i think, most benefiting from the new media and the economic gains - are largely tending towards a culture of consumption and of individualisation.

that was too long. i hope someone can make some sense of my comment. =S

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URLs in this post:
[1] Between imperialism and Islamism: http://www.himalmag.com/2007/october_november/between_imperialism_and_Islamism.html
[2] http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/article3038411.ece: http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/article3038411.ece