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Sham or real democracy?

By Moonis Ahmar - posted Monday, 15 November 1999

After taking over power on the night of October 12, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Pervez Musharraf, in his speech to his countrymen said, " I promise you that we will institute a true democratic system that will enshrine the real spirit of democracy. I will not allow the people to go back to the era of a sham democracy."

Having toppled the democratically elected Government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and suspended the constitution and the assemblies, the Chief Executive, General Musharraf faces a paradoxical situation. If he restores the political process then the present will not be different from the past because of massive corruption, the absence of the rule of law, economic chaos, political fragmentation and misgovernance at all levels. If he decides to stick to power and continue with his agenda of establishing accountability and the rule of law and economic order then he will face problems of legitimacy.

For the people of Pakistan the events of October 12 of this year will be a watershed in their country’s history. The first shot was fired by Prime Minister Mr. Nawaz Sharif when he announced the forced retirement of General Musharraf and his replacement with his own trustee. By making that decision Nawaz Sharif ignored the fact that the Army would not accept Lt. General Ziauddin as the new Chief of Army Staff because it felt that the government was bent on dividing the army.


By retaliating against the appointment of Nawaz Sharif the Army was defending its honour and the sanctity of its Chief.

But, it was not only the forced retirement of General Musharraf, which paved the way for the overthrow of Nawaz’s Government. In fact, at all fronts, the government of Nawaz Sharif was losing. Its retreat vis-à-vis India on the Kargil issue in the summer of 1999, the grave economic situation, growing ethnic, sectarian and religious intolerance and its confrontation with the judiciary and the military created conditions for its ouster from power.

With US $ 35 billion of external and US $ 30 billion of internal debt; low foreign investments to the tune of only US $ 360 million; a limited number of tax payers (483,094 out of a population of 140 million); yearly corruption of US $ 2 billion; and yearly tax evasion of US $ 3.2 billion Pakistan had become an ungovernable state. In addition to this, Nawaz Sharif’s imposition of curbs on the press and other acts of political vendetta made his government unpopular. Therefore, when the army stepped in, the move was welcomed wide and far.

After one month in power, the new quasi-military regime of Pakistan has unveiled its agenda. Nowhere has the Chief Executive mentioned the holding of elections in the near future or the restoration of the constitution and suspended assemblies. But he has emphasised putting the economy back on track, recovering billions of dollars from loan defaulters and providing a basic sense of security to the people. The price, which he has asked for his agenda, is the suspension of the democratic process.

It is the first time in the history of Pakistan or perhaps in the history of the modern world that a military takeover has not resulted in the declaration of martial law, suspension of the civilian courts, establishment of military courts and other punitive measures.

Interestingly, the National Security Council, which has been constituted by the new regime, is composed of military and civilian people and the Federal Cabinet, which has been recently re-constituted, is totally civilian. The government has not banned political activities or political parties. There is no press censorship or curbs on the media. While General Musharraf has vowed to take loan defaulters and other corrupt people to task, he has not resorted to acts of personal vendetta.


Three important observations can be made about the current state of the political situation in Pakistan.

First, in the absence of Martial Law, but in view of the Army’s take over of power, one can see the emergence of a "benign dictatorship." Unlike ruthless military dictators, General Musharraf has pledged to save Pakistan from possible economic disaster and political chaos. So far under the new regime, there is a great degree of tolerance of criticism. In fact, General Musharraf has welcomed feedback from the press and has asked for suggestions from different segments of society for improving the socio-economic conditions of his country.

Second, the regime is not much concerned about legitimacy because it feels that a vast proportion of the silent majority is supportive to its policies. By banking on domestic support and absorbing external pressures like the suspension of Pakistan’s membership of the Commonwealth, condemnation of the October 12 coup by the European Union, postponement of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation summit and calls for the restoration of democracy by Washington, General Musharraf hopes to put things in order. The people of Pakistan will accept the new regime if it is able to fulfil the promises made by him about good governance, the rule of law and accountability.

Third, there is a likelihood that the political process will not be revived unless the economic condition of the country is improved and corrupt elements are sidelined from the political scene. Whenever new elections are held, applicants with dubious pasts and corrupt practices will not be allowed to contest them. Moreover, by "real democracy" General Musharraf means devolution of power from top to bottom and strict accountability.

It is ironic that since 1985 no government in Pakistan has been able to complete its term. The government of Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo was dismissed by President Zia-ul-Haq on charges of misgovernance and inefficiency. Twice the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (1990 and 1996) was dismissed by the President on charges of corruption and extra-judicial killings. Similarly, twice Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was removed from power (1993 and 1999) first by the President (in 1993) and now by the Chief of Army Staff (1999). With such dismissals and removals of governments in Pakistan since 1985 one has to ask questions about the future of democracy in that country. It seems, given the permeation of corruption in society, inefficiency in public institutions and a lack of accountability at all levels, it will take a long time for Pakistan to reach the stage of stable democracy.

In between "sham" and "real democracy" Pakistan will have to experience a phase of reform, restructuring and overhauling of its systems and institutions.

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About the Author

Moonis Ahmar is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, University of Karachi, Pakistan and currently, Visiting Fellow, Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame Indiana, United States. For comments please write to:

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