A Flawed Democracy Failed to Hold Pakistan Together
By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
LONDON - There may be an aura of inevitability surrounding the coup in Pakistan. But it would be foolish to welcome it just because Nawaz Sharif's government had become very unpopular, abused its power and proved incompetent at tackling the nation's myriad political and economic crises.
That said, it is important that the international community refrain from knee-jerk, death-of-democracy responses to retaliate with aid cuts and other sanctions. International influence should be kept in reserve for use in dissuading the generals who are now in power from adventurism in Kash-mir or other Indian fronts.
It is certainly sad to see another Pakistani attempt at parliamentary democracy end in this way. But the reactions of some of Mr. Sharif's political opponents scarcely suggest a deep commitment to the democratic process. For one, his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto, appears to think that he got his just deserts for abuse of power and for hounding her in the courts.
The emphasis of so much other comment and the muted public reaction in Pakistan so far point in the same direction of apathy or antipathy. Yet the failings of Mr. Sharif, like the statements of Miss Bhutto, point to two fundamental flaws in Pakistani democracy.
First, the elite has failed to agree on the rules of the game. This has meant not merely the use of extraparliamentary methods against opponents. It is reflected in the clashes between the prime minister and the president, the executive and the judiciary, the center and the provinces. Strains between power centers take place everywhere, but they have been especially destabilizing in Pakistan.
Some recent difficulties may have been generated by Mr. Sharif's political maneuvering, but underlying them was a broader failure to agree on making the constitution work. Mr. Sharif may have failed as prime minister, but the failure of institutions is more serious.
Second, democracy has failed to undermine the grip of feudalism on rural Pakistan and to invest scarce government resources in areas such as education, which would have social as well as economic returns.
A weak and highly politicized central government, meanwhile, has been unable to cope with regional disorders, which are often financed by drug money or related to small but highly virulent Islamic groups. Both of these major ills are legacies of the Afghanistan war.
Can the military do any better? Conceivably it can and will be more ruthless in dealing with some of the drug-financed gangs and in asserting central power more effectively and less corruptly.
But there are dangers here, too. A democratic system, however flawed, has given voice to the major regional differences that exist and that must be accommodated if the nation is to hold together other than by the force of the army.
The military's attitude toward religion will also be important in assessing its contribution. Will it accept that the majority of the electorate has given scant support to fundamentalist parties, preferring the concept that Pakistan is a ''state for Muslims'' rather than one that must apply Islamic tenets to all things? Or will the military try to use religion both as a domestic crutch and as reason for a more aggressive attitude toward India?
Whatever his other failings, the underlying reason for Mr. Sharif's downfall was the disastrous adventure in Kashmir, whose failure was a humiliation for the army. The army, however, bears much responsibility for this ill-judged action. The world has reason to thank Mr. Sharif for giving in to international pressure and to Indian arms, and backing off.
The army may be accepted for now. But it will soon have to prove that it has a coherent political agenda and is not just motivated by antipathy toward Mr. Sharif. Pakistan may need better and less corrupt government, but it also needs to maintain some well-entrenched traditions of freedom of speech. It must keep government in civilian hands within a more disciplined framework.
The army will have to avoid the reprisals and blood feuds that have marked Pakistani politics for so long. It should also continue the policy of accommodation with India that Mr. Sharif generally tried to practice. It must show that it wants to take a lead in Pakistan's social and economic modernization.
General Pervez Musharraf, the army chief of staff who is now in power, is likely to be judged more by what he does in the future than what he did in leading the coup on Tuesday. He must prove that his action was not yet another step backward for a beleaguered state.