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A Proposal That Puts Democracy on Its Deathbed

September 13, 1998|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg is author of "Judging the State," a study of constitutional politics in Pakistan. She was recently in Islamabad

WASHINGTON — During Gen. Mohammed Zia ul- Haq's decade-long martial law in the 1980s, Pakistan's banned politicians occasionally would congregate to lament the excesses of military rule. As they listed each abuse, the audience would chant, "Shame! Shame!" Then everyone would return to jail.

When the army went back to its barracks, Pakistanis hoped that constitutional rule was back and the days of shame were over. They were wrong.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif summoned Parliament, for the first time in months, to propose a constitutional amendment. He seeks to override parliamentary prerogative by administrative fiat, dilute the bicameral system, evade the fragile compact among provinces and consolidate executive functions in ways that can abrogate the constitution.

The shame is that these measures are advanced in the name of Islam.

Once again, political opportunism is masquerading as religion. For 51 years, Pakistan's governments have undertaken many self-defeating and contradictory actions, and called them all Islamic. Zia's reached furthest: By placing the constitution "in abeyance" and replacing it with regulations and ordinances, he set the stage for a wholesale revision of Pakistan's governance. When his rule weakened, he extended his tenure by equating it with his Islamic program. What he called Islamization, others called dictatorship.

Sharif is now trying the same ploy. He, too, acts out of weakness. His measures can destroy what's left of democracy in Pakistan.

Politicizing religion by challenging the constitution is no way to save democracy, particularly in a state that isn't working well. Pakistan's failures, old and new, flow from its leaders' betrayal of democratic ideals. Its political elites reinforce their hold rather than share power. Many virtually own their districts and refuse any initiatives to redistribute wealth, still among the most concentrated in the world. Military spending overshadows civilian needs. While awaiting word on an infusion of funds from the International Monetary Fund, the army's chief of staff was in Ukraine negotiating new military purchases. Political leaders allow the military to shadow their authority, conveniently disavowing responsibility for even tentative political reform.

These failures of Pakistan's democracy are turning into the failure of its state. Pakistan labors under extraordinary liabilities. Its economy is submerged under mountains of debt, and after its nuclear tests in May, international displeasure turned into economic isolation. Its foreign-policy forays have backfired. In August, U.S. cruise missiles hit not only Afghans but Pakistanis training for jihad in Kashmir, giving lie to strenuous Pakistani claims that they are only distant advisors to Afghanistan's Taliban and provide only moral support to Kashmir's insurgents. India gleefully notes the ironies--training camps, it says, mean interference in its domestic domain in Kashmir--and Afghanistan's Northern Alliance complained to the United Nations that Taliban victories came at foreign, not local, hands.

Why is Sharif trying to accrue more power now? Timing provides one hint. His proposal aired on national television exactly one week after the cruise-missile attack, a week in which Pakistan didn't know whether to object to a violation of Afghanistan's sovereignty, Pakistani airspace, the killing of its own citizens or its own ignorance.

It came 10 days after the Americans evacuated their embassy, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Zia, Sharif's benefactor and the man who invented the Taliban's progenitors and made constitutional abrogation into an art. The proposal came just three days after talks with the United States about regional politics, bailouts for a failing economy and Pakistan's nuclear future, issues on which Pakistan may be forced to compromise with the world to avoid the failure of its state.

Domestic politics fare no better. Pakistanis evince ambivalence about political leaders who appease the loudest rather than satisfy the neediest and--like Sharif and his opponent, Benazir Bhutto--choreograph alliances with militants to provide the pretense of pluralism. Prevailing street sentiment leans toward fear: What would default mean for the average citizen? Many Pakistanis worry that militarization and nuclearization outweigh their advertised benefits; security, after all, must be felt, not just announced. Public reaction to the U.S. missile attack on Afghanistan was muted. The government decried state-sponsored terrorism, but most Pakistanis were far more aware of local violence and terrorism.

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