17. Mai 2002. Interviews: Pakistan - Politik & Recht Pakistan after the referendum

An interview with Professor Aslam Syed

On the 30th April 2002, Chief Executive Pervez Musharraf confirmed his position as the President of Pakistan through a referendum. Most large Parties had called for a boycott of this referendum. According to official sources, 56 percent of the electorate cast their vote – 97 percent of them voted for Musharraf. The opposition reported the number of people who went to the ballot to be only 5-7 percent. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan talked of grave election fraud by the governement.

We talked to Aslam Syed, a guest lecturer at the Institute of Southasian History of the Humboldt Universität in Berlin, about the influence of the referendum, the power of the president, the situation of the political parties and the possibility of furthering democracy in Pakistan. Professor Syed taught History at the Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad. He has also been guest lecturer at various Universities, among them Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. Professor Syed wrote for Pakistani newspapers over many years. One of his latest publications is "Islam and democracy in Pakistan" (Islamabad 1995).

Professor Syed, how do you interpret the result of the referendum and the election turnout? How successful was the boycott by the opposition parties?
My information is based on newspapers and emails. One of my friends actually went to many polling stations and sent his findings to me. The turnout was not as big as claimed by official sources. Yet the question is not how many people showed up, but whether the boycott was successful or not. The boycott was not as successful as claimed by the opposition. So the truth is somewhere between the two.
As far as the constitutionality of the referendum is concerned: there is a clause in the constitution but it does not concern the election of the president. It is when important questions come up where the people have to be asked for their opinions, that the government can hold a referendum. But even in Musharrafs case, it was not unconstitutional since previously referendums were done on this basis in Pakistan.
That is also the position of Supreme Court. Do you support this view?
No, I personally do not, but I am giving an overview of these two opinions. I personally don’t think that referendum was essential.
Why? Didn't it strengthen Musharrafs position?
No, it did not. I don’t know who advised him to undertake this exercise – nonetheless, since he adopted it, now it is his decision. I think he just wanted to make sure that he is not thrown out. Both the position he took against the extremist religious ideologues and the co-operation he offered in this so-called "War against Terrorism" could have endangered his position. Moreover, the courts were flooded with different kinds of cases challenging his constitutionality as the head of the state. There were also people in Islamabad - and these include not only Pakistanis but also people from abroad - who want him in power and must have pushed this. It is internal as well as external. Internal - to shut the mouths of those people who are criticising his policy towards Afghanistan and towards these religious militants and external -to make sure that the co-operation with the international world continues smoothly.
In the press, it seemed as if the opposition showed less power than a year before when the big demonstrations were held. Why?
Because in their position they do not have a very pleasant face to show to the public. One year before, before September 11th, the situation was different. Musharraf was still branded as someone who staged the coup. The image of Pakistan has changed drastically after Musharrafs support of the coalition against terror. And many people feel that the continuation of his policies will be beneficial in the long run both economically and socially for the people of Pakistan.
The opposition are these two main political parties: Muslim League – people don’t want to hear the name of Nawaz Sharif, and what he did to the country. And the People’s Party – Benazir Bhutto. If she had any guts or wisdom she would have come back to Pakistan and faced the cases in the court against her for corruption and nepotism. So people know the difference. They know that they are good only as noisemakers. But when it comes to the question of a profile of their achievements – after Zia-ul Haqs death twice People’s Party came into power, twice Muslim League – people think that both really ruined the country economically and socially. And those parties are not in a position to establish the rule of law, and to eliminate the extremist elements from Pakistan. That explains why the demonstrations by the oppositon were not that big or that influential.
Some papers mentioned that in his election campaign he used some of the same strategies as his predecessors, for example, at a rally in Punjab, when he hit out at the media. After the referendum the papers said that he has now finally also become a politician. Not exactly a positive image in Pakistan?
That explains itself. If politicians have a good image, why would Musharraf being a politician be a negative image? That shows that the politicians are disliked in the country. His image before the referendum was that of a reformer - someone who wants to change various political, social, economical dimensions of society. But the moment he starts campaigning for elections, offering himself as a candidate for presidency, he is branded a politician. And politicians are not what the people of the country want to look up at. In fact, some of his speeches, and the way in which people were brought to these gatherings were done exactly the way that a ruling prime minister or any politician would have done in the past. That people are brought to the meetings and the language he uses to convince them is not the language of General Musharraf who came to save the country but of one who wants to have a political position. That’s why these papers were condemning him. But what the people did not realise: they were actually supporting him. Because, if he is a politician, so are the others in the opposition. And in that case, the choice is between a good politician and a bad politician.
One thing we all must remember is that because of the frequent interventions by the army in the politics of Pakistan, the army is perceived as a political institution. So any person who heads that organisation, if he is branded a politician, it’s perfectly legitimate. Ayub Khan, Yaya Khan, Zia-ul Haq – who were these people? They were all politicians. Whether you could say they came on the forefront because of compulsion or willingly or they sidelined the political parties and politicians doesn’t matter. The fact of the matter is that they all presented themselves as a politicians.
What does the fact that people have such a bad image of a politician mean for future movements towards democracy?
It would mean two things. One, that this is the traditional or accepted normative behaviour of politicians. You see, when we use the word politician what characteristics come to the mind of the people? One, that he is liar. Second, that he is corrupt. Third, that when he comes to power he will bring in incompetent people on the basis of his supporters and relations, rather than on the basis of ability. So long as this view persists, politicians will continue to have such an image in that society. It is not helpful for restoration of democracy. But the moment someone - it could be Musharraf or someone else from the younger generation - comes up and changes this image of a politician, he could force politicians to pay more attention to competence and ability rather than to nepotism and political support.
Was that not exactly the image Musharraf wanted to create of himself?
Yes, that was the image he wanted to create but apparently, papers did not like that image. It is too early to say. As long as he was the General appointed by the supreme court to look after the interests of Pakistan, apparently he has done better than many others. Now what will he do when he becomes a politician? If he behaves like they had behaved, then there will be no change in the image of a politician. But if he makes a difference, then people will realise that a politician is not necessarily something bad. So, it seems up to Musharraf to break this negative perception.
In this case, where should a civil society - neither linked to the President, nor to any political party but still in favour of democracy - place itself?
I would answer immediately: grass-root politics, grass-root politicians, new people, young people coming up from local councils. The civil society should strengthen the villages, town committees and cities. So far, politics in Pakistan have been determined both in terms of institutions and in terms of policies by the centre. The civil society can make a difference by bring these people to the centre. There are two ways: one, go and attack the centre, attack the president, the result will be that there will be clash between opposition and the government. The other choice is to look at the disease. Where does the problem at the centre come from? Who needs to be educated? The Electorate, the people. And who are the people that matter? People at the grass-roots.
There were reports in the press, which claimed that Musharraf had offered money to the heads of these very local councils so that they would bring the electorate into the polling stations. So Musharraf knows about the importance of that grass root level?
We do not know whether these reports are substantiated or not. These councilors owe their status to General Musharraf’s idea of local government. Why should they be bribed? It was in their own interest to support him. That he facilitated their coming to the meetings by providing them infrastructure, I am willing to believe. He provided them transport or other infrastructure to come and help him, that is a different matter.
In what context is the General using the word "democracy"? What does democracy mean to the people of Pakistan?
If we look at the history of Pakistan, we will see that what the people of Pakistan understand by the word "democracy" is not what is, perhaps, understood in the West. By democracy they understand elections and voting. The second thing is that the days are gone when you could simply ignore democracy. It is a fact of life today that democracy whether it exists in a society or not, whether a society is equipped with all the skills to institutionalise democracy or not, it is the demand of the public and especially the press. It is an amazing phenomenon, that in spite of all this, you still have a very free press in the country. And these people represent what we call the consciousness of the society. They still think that democracy is perhaps not the ideal form but that it is the best available tool to us today. So nobody can ignore democracy, not even Generals can ignore democracy today in Pakistan.
Where do you see the strongest opposition to Musharraf - in the army, in the 'ulama, in the urban middle or upper classes, in the students?
Well, it's not located in one place. 'Ulama (religious scholars) – no, but these radical militant religious groups – yes, they are opposed to Musharraf. Some political organisations of the 'ulama like these different Jihadi organisations as we call them, who were very active in Afghanistan - they were opposed to him.
Secondly, there is a section of the population which did not like his too friendly gestures towards the Americans by giving them airports, by giving them all the infrastructure. They voiced their grievances, not against the Americans, but against Musharraf. They think that if there had there had been someone else in his place, that perhaps that person would not have made concessions to the same extent.
The third element is the political parties. These political parties know that their members have been disqualified from taking part in the elections because of corruption cases against them. Naturally they see in him a constant, a permanent stumbling block in their political ambitions. So long as he is there, they know that they won’t be able to come back into power.
Students have been de-politicised since a long time. Zia ul-Haq got away with all those associations and student unions which were active. They had actually been in many ways mouth pieces of political parties. Almost every political party in the country had a student body in universities and colleges. And they had used those students in the time of crisis. This is why Zia ul-Haq de-politicised these student bodies.
Intellectuals – yes, they are against any kind of authoritarian governments. We also have a few NGOs and other people who constantly write and prepare reports, like the Human Rights Organisations of Pakistan. They constantly criticise any high-handedness which is demonstrated by the politicians, particularly if they have not come into power through popular elections.
All these constitute, what you call, opposition to Musharraf but their interests are different, their tactics of opposing him are different, some are happy just by writing an article against him, others are happy just by going into the street shouting against him...
...some need a bomb blast in Karachi...
Yes, others create chaos and law and order situations to frustrate him. Their tactics are so different that we cannot think of a combined opposition which uses legitimate and acceptable means and methods to oppose Musharraf.
If opposition is not united and comes from so many political wings, what could be a possibility for restoring democracy?
Well, one possibility is that these guys should get together and view their approaches towards the installation of democracy. In Pakistani politics these movements that we see for democracy are aimed at destabilising the government. Once they have successfully done that, the real challenge comes. That is where they fail mostly. We have all these "Movements for the Restoration of Democracy" (after Musharrafs coup, many parties jointly formed this movement) which are aimed at opposing someone, but not at strengthening the institutions of democracy. I’ll give you another example: look at the political parties in Pakistan. Do they have democracy within themselves? They are dynasties. Father, daughter or son and then cohorts and the descendants of the initial group, their children. This is an amazing dilemma, these people who want democracy, do not exercise that in their own ranks, in their own institutions. And that is, I think, one of the biggest hurdles in establishing what we call true democracy in that society.
But if political parties are dynasties, if they are not democratic within themselves, if they are obviously very corrupt - where do we look?
Look at grass-roots, at this new generation, these young men and women who have been elected by the smaller constituencies. Maybe they realise that the problem with democracy in Pakistan is not that the people and the society are anti-democratic, but that it is those people who take the flag of democracy in their hands and hoist it only amongst the demonstrators and their audience. There is some problem with them.
Secondly, there are laws. They just need to be implemented. That is another problem in Pakistani society - they have laws for introducing democracy in political parties, they have laws that political parties’ contribution should be audited and presented to the main executive body of these political parties and so on. If they are implemented, most of these political parties would get rid of the horrible influences of certain dynastic remainders of the past. The people are really fed up looking at the same faces again and again. I remember when elections were held, many of the voters did not vote during Nawaz Sharif and Benazirs times. Why? They said, the choice is between the devil and the deep sea. That’s no choice! Where is the third force, where is the alternative? And these people who offered an alternative like Imran Khan and others didn’t have that sort of infrastructure necessary.
So it could take time but ultimately, I have great faith and I hope I’m not proved wrong. If we take the power from the centre, in education and health, and give to these local communities, local bodies, I think there will be a difference.
You said there are a lot of rules that have to be implemented so that this works. Does it need a few years of guided democracy?
No, no, not at all. That’s a very false impression. That’s what Ayub Khan tried to say. (Ayub Khan, Martial Law Administrator between 1958 and 1969, created a "guided democracy" without political parties. He divided the constituencies into 80 000 "basic democracies" which were not really autonomous but were meant to strengthen the influence of the centre.) Because whosoever says that you need a guided democracy becomes a guide himself. That’s where the problem is. These laws and these rules, why should they be centralised? Why can’t we distribute these laws and rules to the people who govern themselves? The moment we implement this art - this is your area, these are your resources, you are responsible for handling these resources in a way that your children get better education, that your sick get better health facilities, your produce gets better access to the market without any exploitation, without any overburdening – it will give the people some idea of how wonderful it is to regulate your own life.
In conclusion, how do you judge Musharraf's last year? Did he handle the international crisis after 11th September better than a government with the given political parties would have done it?
That’s a hypothetical question. I think he did well, given the circumstances. He could have done more, but you have to work with the available sources – both in human terms and in terms of infrastructure. So given that, he has done alright. Since he just slipped into the clothes of a politician, we have to wait a bit to compare Musharraf with his civil predecessors.


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