At the end of it all, Pervez Musharraf had one final significant decision to mull: make a relatively dignified exit, or leave kicking and screaming. That he chose the former is perhaps one of the more sound decisions he has made lately.
“How did it come to this so quickly?” he must mutter to himself in between sips of his evening drink. In the days before he resigned, Musharraf faced a Pakistani public firmly against him, political parties at his throat, and important backers such as the Pakistan Army and the United States government nimbly stepping aside as his political fortunes turned for the worse.
And yet, it does not strain one’s memory to recall a time when none of the above propositions were true. Musharraf was an immensely popular man both at home and abroad until the spring of last year, when he picked against the then Chief Justice what many Pakistanis may characterize as a panga – a needless fight driven by ego. The fallout from his ill-advised, not to mention illegal, move to essentially fire Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was to provide a rallying point for the galvanizing of varying strands of Pakistani society – the legal community, civil society, independent media, the religious right, and the nationalist right – into opposition to Musharraf.
The practical consequences of that somewhat tenuous unity bare themselves to us in clear terms today. In February of last year, his job approval spread was +41 (63% of Pakistanis approved of his job performance, 22% disapproved). In June of this year it was measured to be -64 (check p. 42 of this report for the numbers). His political career is over, with the new coalition government, elected in February this year largely on an anti-Musharraf platform, forcing his hand with the very credible threat of impeachment. As a final insult, he also had to bear having his human rights violations compared unfavorably to Adolf Hitler’s.
As his career draws to a close, it behooves political observers to consider Musharraf’s legacy. How will we remember the man, and the leader? How will Pakistan?
Lazy historians will reach for two superficially valid points of comparison. The first is Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler. Like Musharraf, Ayub carried out a bloodless coup in October (1958 for Ayub, 1999 for Musharraf). Like Musharraf, Ayub was westernized and secular in his outlook. Like Musharraf, Ayub concocted devolution-of-power plans that were cloaked in the garb of furthering democracy but were in actual fact attempts to consolidate military rule. And like Musharraf, Ayub formed an alliance with the U.S., receiving Western largesse in return for support in the global political struggle of the day (the Cold War then, the so-called War on Terror today).
The second faulty analogue that will be drawn will be with Zia-ul-Haq. Like Musharraf, Zia seized power by deposing a popularly elected Prime Minister; Ayub’s assumption of power, by contrast, was by invitation when then-President Iskander Mirza declared martial law. Like Musharraf, Zia participated wholeheartedly in a Western-led military struggle in Afghanistan whose long-term effects can only be guessed. And like Musharraf, Zia attempted to recreate and rebrand the powerful Pakistan military in his own image – a thoroughly Islamic one in Zia’s case, and a pragmatically secular one in Musharraf’s.
The comparisons fall short for one highly significant reason, however: unlike his predecessors, Musharraf is the only military ruler whose time in power has, paradoxically and often unintentionally, helped create the conditions vital for truly democratic government to take root in Pakistan.
Scholars of democratization remain divided over which segment of society – the middle class or the working class – is most necessary for democratic government to be established in a state. One canonical work’s arrestingly argues for the former with the words, “no bourgeois, no democracy.” More recent scholarship has brought that claim into dispute, instead arguing that a strong working class is the driving force toward a state becoming democratic.
Either way, Musharraf has solidified Pakistan’s prospects for sustainable democracy. The liberalizing of the economy under him earlier this decade led to the creation of a larger professional class in Pakistan – lawyers, bankers, consultants – and strong manufacturing growth led to better economic fortunes for lower-income wage earners. That these efforts are in danger of being undone via the combination of political instability in Pakistan, a crisis in investor confidence, and global food and fuel inflation is troubling to say the least, but should not make us forget what preceded the present economic crisis.
In addition to his economic policies, Musharraf took important and unprecedented steps in liberalizing the media and civil society, allowing freedom of expression to flourish as it had never done before – even during Pakistan’s so-called democratic years. He discovered for himself last year just how strong an institution the independent media had become, when he faced his first serious and prolonged crisis of legitimacy. Despite heavy-handed physical, financial, legal, and bureaucratic attempts to curb criticism of his government by television talk-show hosts and newspapers, Musharraf quickly found that he was almost helpless in stemming the tide of public disapproval – unlike previous Pakistani rulers, who were significantly more successful in their attempts to clamp down on free expression.
Finally, Musharraf made substantive progress on ties with India, becoming the man Indian leaders hate to love, and helping guide the détente in the subcontinent since early in 2004. Pakistan’s historically thorny relationship with India is one of the key factors in the failure of democracy to take hold in the country. It has allowed the military to self-servingly regard itself as the guardian of the state, and allowed it to dominate politicians – or “bloody civies” as military men in Pakistan pejoratively like to call them – on important issue areas like foreign policy, even when the politicians are purportedly in power. Continued strengthening of relations with India can only bode well for Pakistan’s democracy.
Ultimately, Musharraf will leave behind a complicated legacy, befitting a man prone to self-contradiction. The man who refused to allow gang-rape victim Mukhtaran Mai to receive international awards because he felt her recognition would hurt Pakistan’s image also ensured greater legislative representation for women, and expended considerable political capital on pushing through a controversial bill through parliament in 2006 which made it easier to prosecute and report rapes. The man who presided over the greatest explosion in free speech in Pakistan’s history also brandished an ugly authoritarian inclination to crush criticism and jail political opponents when push came to shove. The man who arguably led Pakistan’s stupidest military misadventure – the Kargil mini-war in 1999 – displayed progressive statesmanship when faced with the reality of an unwinnable political conflict with India.
In the final analysis, however, Musharraf’s greatest contradiction may be that, as a military man who was as unaccommodating as any to political forces opposed to him, he laid the foundations of sustainable democratic governance in a country that has never enjoyed it. Whether or not those foundations are built upon is contingent on the conduct of politicians finally freed of the Musharraf straitjacket, and new Chief of Army Staff Kayani – chastened by the backlash the military has faced with Musharraf’s declining popularity – keeping his word on staying in the barracks.
Pakistan’s political elites have never before faced such opportune circumstances for making long-lasting pacts sustaining democracy. They have legitimacy amongst the broader public by virtue of being elected in relatively free and fair elections. They have political momentum on the back of accomplishing one of their central goals – pushing Musharraf out. They have an army chief for the first time being explicit about his intentions to keep the military out of politics. Though extensive challenges remain – the weakening economy and the Taliban threat chief among them – it is imperative that civilian elites take this opportunity to cement a sustainable and checks-and-balances parliamentary democracy in Pakistan. Moreover, it is crucial that the Pakistani public and media demand from the newly elected civilian leaders the same standard of accountability that they did so vociferously against Musharraf - thus keeping them on their toes and obviating a slide into the self-aggrandizing misgovernance of the 1990s.