No More Martial Law
By Nayyer Ali MD
In its almost 70 years of existence Pakistan has repeatedly oscillated between civilian and military rule. Which one was better or worse for the country has been an ongoing parlor room debate for decades. For the democrats who have opposed the military, they feel that democracy is the only viable political system that can hold Pakistan together and lead to its positive development. They see military rule as a disastrous detour that always leaves the country worse off in the long run, despite whatever minor positive may come from it. And they hold the generals responsible for the failure of democracy to take hold in Pakistan. They also tend to emphasize process as far more important than short-term outcome, which is why they do not accept arguments about politicians poor rule/corruption/incompetence, or the track record of better economic growth and human development under military rule.
Over the last 15 years I have been sharply critical of this point of view. I think these critics tend to lump Pakistan's four ruling generals into one pile and do not differentiate between them. I think Zia was the worst, and Yahya, in a short period of time, was also catastrophic. Ayub was pretty good all things considered, and Pakistan in the 1950's was unlikely to sustain democracy without a towering unifying Nehru-like figure (Jinnah needed to live another 20 years). Musharraf was very good, and did a number of positive things. His decision to abandon the Taliban was the right one. He reformed the economy in many major ways (but no one can do everything, and much still needs to be done), he raised living standards and vastly expanded higher education in particular, and he created a truly free and diverse media. He also got Pakistan's fiscal house in order, taking debt to GDP ratio down from a crippling 100% to under 50%. His decision to fire the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in March 2007 was the cause of his downfall in the end, but he should get credit for taking off the uniform and allowing a free election that ultimately cost him his power, and he left the stage peacefully. Musharraf in many ways will be seen as a critical figure in the creation of modern Pakistan, even though he was a general.
But now I have come to a different conclusion. While economic performance since Musharraf left has been poor, the answer cannot be to turn back to the military. Even though 8 years after electric power shortages developed, neither the PPP nor the PML governments have been able to keep the lights on despite promises to do so. This failure of democracy to actually produce good outcomes for the people of Pakistan has to be rectified. Now that we have actual democracy it is important to start emphasizing actual outcome and performance of the government. That has been mediocre at best.
Imran Khan needs to learn the lesson that Sharif did. In the 1990's the politicians were as complicit in the death of democracy as the generals. Pakistan's major politicians, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, were both conceived and raised by generals, but then proceeded to become independent politicians. In the 90's though, neither Zulfikar’s daughter Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif would allow normal politics, whoever was out of power would do everything they could to undermine the one in power, and were constantly begging for military intervention. They finally got it with Musharraf. This time around, Sharif realized that it was wisest to allow the PPP to serve their five years in peace and then win an election so that he too could rule free of a coup threat. Imran Khan too needs to learn that the politician should never again serve the military or attempt to use them to take down a civilian government. Khan should not have wasted the last two years stirring up trouble. If he had governed KPK province well he would be well-positioned to win the next election; instead he has bungled governance while still playing a double game with respect to the TTP.
Pakistan is coming together as a nation because of democracy, while the Arab countries are being torn apart from Baghdad to Tripoli. The rising Pakistani urban middle class will soon want to run the country, but up to now they have lacked a vehicle for their desires. Can Sharif morph the PML into that sort of party? If so, he would consolidate his hold on political power for the next decade. Can Imran Khan become that vehicle? He needs to up his game rapidly if he wishes too. Meanwhile, the other major national party, the PPP is in disarray without Benazir and with the tarnished Asif Zardari still running the show. It is an open question whether the PPP will ever again be a major national political force.