Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Musharraf Leaves Behind A Complicated Legacy, And An Opportunity

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 d├ętente 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.


Anonymous said...

"“How did it come to this so quickly?” he must mutter to himself in between sips of his evening drink"


AKS said...

I particularly like the bit about the superficial comparison between Musharraf and Ayub / Zia. I too have unwittingly have fallen prey to this at various times, but as you point out such a comparison is intellectually lazy.

Another thing is that Musharraf was quite adept at managing his liberal persona. I know it's strange for me to say that considering how hated he is by the right but much of the mainstream conservative anger directed towards Musharraf focused on his support of the 'War on Terror' and not on his personal liberal tendencies. I think Musharraf had a better idea of what was palatable to the Pakistani people and he didn't stuff his personal ideology down everyone's throats. That is why you didn't see more pictures of Musharraf with his dogs or with a whiskey in his hand; in fact you only saw these images early in his rule when he was trying to convince the world that he wasn't another Zia. Incidentally, at the PTV's Independence Day celebration, which was his last public appearance as President, he appeared on screens with a cigar in one hand and a glass in another; perhaps by that time he knew he wasn't going to stay in power for long and didn't care what the Mullahs thought of him.

Anonymous said...


changinguppakistan said...

Great analysis - I particularly like the part, "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." I automatically was reminded of how Musharraf liberalized and privatized the media - and while that came back to haunt him later, it allowed for a new dynamic in Pakistan that we already seeing play out with this new coalition government. The function of the media today is significant because it holds these democratic leaders more accountable for actions and changes the way Pakistanis receive and digest their information.

I saw a great article this morning that made me feel happy for our now former president -;_ylt=AuDobFLTnp1UPB1NHRrU4YvzPukA.

- Kalsoom

changinguppakistan said...


Why get so angry over one small word in a lengthy analysis. Life's too short. And maybe his evening drink is a virgin daiquiri - the term could be ambiguous.

{CPM - copy paste material} said...

really great article. having covered the past year as a amateurish journalist, i had my sympathies with mushie if only cuz i felt that his opposition was also very adept at realpolitik, and because of a relatively inexplicable reason that your article very eloquently states - unlike the others he was the nurturer of the very forces that came to his end. seems to remind me of some of the mythologies from around the world where the creation stories seems to have parts where the children would go after their own creators. hopefully it would lead to the creation of a new idea of pakistan, one that is not insecure and prone to be hijacked by alleged saviors.

very well written

Ahsan said...

The people who had kind words:

Thanks for your kind words.


Please chill out. And wake up.


Yes, I hope he relaxes and spends time with his family now. Better for everyone involved, methinks.

Anonymous said...

A good summary of Musharraf's time in Power; something rare to see when all about him is written with Hatred and emotions.

Here are few other articles about him. worth reading..

Why Musharraf was made to leave?

One reality, many perspectives

Accessing the Lagacy

Arif said...

Ahsan, I like this piece and agree with its general approach toward Musharraf.

It appreciates the contradictions and complexities of a straight shooting man.

I do slightly disagree with your assertion that Musharraf "laid the foundations of sustainable democratic governance in a country that has never enjoyed it."

It's definitely plausible, but it's too early to reach such a conclusion. We'll have to wait and see if what he laid down were foundations, or just a collection shoddily assembled bricks that will be washed away -- by both his actions and those that follow him (i.e. Hurricaine Zardari).

This is the million dollar question -- in the end, for all his flaws, did he help bring the country out of its systemic interchange between shoddy civil and military rule, or will we have Gen. Kayani preaching "enlightened moderation," heightened hallucination, or something else in a few years after a failed Zardari presidency?

Did Musharraf systemically change Pakistan enough that it is beyond a reasonable point of no return in respect to democracy and socio-economic development? That is a reasonable test of his success. That's why Pakistanis permit coups -- for systemic change/re-balancing.

Time will tell. An indication of the negative would be that the same old guys from the pre-Musharraf 90s are back. But an indication of the positive would be that Nawaz and Shahbaz could be changed men -- changed personally and/or in response to a changed public perhaps birthed by Musharraf's persona & policies.

I think Musharraf's resorting to emergency rule and convoluted attempts to work around the constitution (the actions of November 3rd have no precedent -- they weren't martial law or emergency rule) represent his failure to make systemic change. AFTER 8 years he had to effectively do another coup.

FYI, Musharraf, Zia, and Ayub all sought to create local government programs that would go around what they saw as the corrupt politicians. So they do have that in common. Other authoritarians, I think in Latin America, have used local gov't programs as well. The stated rationale is that these systems work around the 'bloodsuckers' and get development funds as directly to the common man as possible. But they also provide the authoritarian with a set of bureaucrats/elected officials loyal to him. Rather than creating more effective gov't, it's often more about developing a power base.

But, in the end, I think politicians & military rulers are complex like all of us. Actions are not motivated by single intentions, but by a mix -- rivarly, lust of power, desire to do good, etc.

Ahsan said...

[Homer Simpson voice] Mmmmm. "Heightened hallucination". Now there's a slogan I can get behind. [Important person voice] The preceding comment should in no way be taken to mean that Rs. 5 or any of its contributors endorse the sale, purchase, or use of illegal drugs in any way, shape or form.

[Normal Ahsan voice]: Arif, some good points. I obviously won't respond to everything you said but I do have some thoughts:

1. I don't think Musharraf's second coup is indicative that structural change did not take place. To the contrary, that series of events in fact supports my position. Why? Because his second coup did not succeed. He was under *enormous* pressure right off the bat, he *had* to hold elections soon, and he *had* to relinquish power to those won at the polls. Compare that with Zia's second coup, which failed only because, to borrow from the title of a recently released book, some mangoes got uppity. Musharraf's second coup didn't stand a chance, not in the Pakistan of 2007/08, the one he partly helped create.

2. You correctly Zardari as the game changer. And to be perfectly honest, I really don't want to be playing a game where Zardari is on my team and the game's result depends on him. Somehow that scenario inspires less than complete confidence.

3. I'm really glad you brought up Latin America. Obviously there are a lot of parallels with the Pakistan case insofar as the military-bureaucratic complex curtailing democracy is concerned. But the one thing that struck me as a stark contrast when reading about those cases is how partisan Latin American militaries have historically been compared to our army. There, militaries constituted bulwarks against leftist/authoritarian leftist parties and movements. The Pakistan case is different, where the military has not been partisan per se.

The interesting thing for me is that despite those very different avenues to power, the domestic coalitions underpinning non-democratic rule was the same as Pakistan: the military, the bureaucracy, and landed elites.

Riaz Haq said...

Regardless of your opinion about Musharraf, I think you'd all agree that Pakistanis are in for a rough transition that may cause many to lose nerve and even cry for Musharaf's return. Economy is tanking and the Taliban militancy is taking its heaviest toll on the citizens yet. These are going to be really testing times for all, particularly the leadership at the helm now. Only time will tell if the people and their new leaders (or the recycled ones)are up to the challenges ahead.

Anonymous said...

riaz- why does ur head look like a bean?

Ahsan said...


No personal insults against fellow commenters please. Thanks...

Jack said...

"Homer Simpson voice"!..

Come on. Being a slave to western cultural imperialism to this extent is a rather over the top, don't you think, Ahsan?