KARACHI, Pakistan — Generals have governed Pakistan longer than politicians, and over their many years in power, the military has refined the skill of stealth rule to an art. So when voters go to the polls Thursday in the first general elections since Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized power in an October 1999 coup, the men in uniform won't be surrendering power--just sharing some of it.
A growing number of detractors say Musharraf, who declared himself president last year, is trying to disguise military rule as liberal democracy. Musharraf, who will remain president and commanding general after the legislative elections, forced through constitutional changes in August to guarantee the armed forces a central role in government.
Musharraf has granted himself the power to dismiss an elected parliament and prime minister. He also has created a National Security Council and given several seats to military officers. Opponents say that will allow the military to oversee an elected government.
In addition, Musharraf has extended the military's reach into state-run companies and agencies, installing loyal officers in place of civilians at the top of the entities that control everything from the phone system and postal service to road construction and computer databases on citizens.
From Cereal to Fertilizer
This administrative power melds with the military's already enormous commercial enterprises, which dominate large parts of Pakistan's economy with a network of companies that make products such as breakfast cereals, milk and fertilizer. The military's business ventures include an airline, an FM radio station, a pay-TV channel, insurance, real estate and travel agencies, and one of the country's largest banks. All this in a nation that devotes a very high 29% of its budget to the armed forces, according to the World Bank.
Critics call this the relentless militarization of Pakistani society and charge that the generals who seized power promising to rid the country of corruption are now supervising a more subtle form of it.
Ayesha Siddiqa-Agha, a security analyst at Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, the capital, has spent years investigating the military's business interests and says they aren't nearly as clean as they claim.
"When you dig into them, you find out they are inefficient, and there is evidence of corruption," Siddiqa-Agha said. "There is also evidence of corruption linked to monopolization of government contracts. That has increased in the past three or four years."
Military regimes have governed Pakistan for more than half of the 55 years since Britain granted the Indian subcontinent independence. But the armed forces, especially the army, have strengthened their control over government and the economy under Musharraf, said Mian Raza Rabbani, a former federal law minister.
"After Oct. 12, 1999, Pakistan has perhaps witnessed the greatest militarization of civil society in its entire history," said Rabbani, secretary-general of exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. "Never has the military been inducted into such low levels of civil society."
Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf's spokesman, said Rabbani and Siddiqa-Agha are wrong and insisted that the 1999 coup gave Pakistan a high-quality government that is cleaning up the problems it inherited.
"In the last years, there has been no martial law or military government," Qureshi said. "It's a government of civilians. President Musharraf selected the best Pakistani civilians available in the world. And they are the ones who formed the cabinets at the central level and at the provincial level. There is no 'militarization of society.' "
But Siddiqa-Agha, former director of naval research for Pakistan's navy, said Musharraf has put about 500 uniformed officers in control of government agencies and state-run corporations. The president has made no commitment to return any of those jobs to civilians, and a newly elected government isn't likely to insist on it, she added.
"The military is still powerful, and the fear is there," Siddiqa-Agha said. "You don't want to go out of your way and annoy the military as soon as you take over."
One military man now heading a civilian agency is Maj. Gen. Farrukh Javed, whom Musharraf installed as chairman of the National Highway Authority, which is planning projects worth more than $800 million this fiscal year.
Last month, the head of a private consortium building a major highway admitted at a news conference that he won the $117-million contract--awarded without competitive public bidding--with the help of retired army Brig. Aftab Siddiqui, the father-in-law of Musharraf's son Bilal.
Sheikh Yousaf, who owns Husnain Construction Ltd., said the brigadier was a consultant on the project. But he isn't on the payroll anymore, Yousaf added. When reporters pressed for more details, Yousaf's son ran onto the stage and told him not to answer any more questions.