Political Crisis On A Silent Street

by Ali Cheema

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The renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen, having witnessed the suspension of Pakistan’s Constitution during her recent trip to Lahore, raises a critical question in her Guardian article: will the street rise? Based on her experience of the street in Lahore she concludes that “(m)y experience…was of bustling shops and bazaars: no closed shops, no drawn shutters.” In brief her categorical answer to the question, which I agree with, is that no the street in Lahore will not rise. Unwittingly Professor Sassen’s Guardian article raises a question and a concern that continues to befuddle the good General: why is he in a deep political crisis given that food and shopping remain the mantra of the urban street; and is there something behind the surface of the street that may yet strike him down?

These are non-trivial questions. There was no teleological certainty that would have predicted General Musharraf’s deepening political crisis. Musharraf was hailed as Caesar by all hues of Pakistan’s urban middle class and its urban elite—then as now the street remained silent. He was hailed as the embodiment of personal sincerity and honesty, a statesman with a sense of purpose and for his constituency this was enough—as for the street it maintained its silence. He was hailed as the economic savior and it did not matter whether Pakistan’s macroeconomic crisis had been averted because of the 9/11 windfall or in spite of it—as for the street, business began to stir but otherwise it remained silent. He was hailed as the deliverer of prosperity as massive inflows of money into property, banking and stocks created an unprecedented economic and consumer boom—the street, well, business boomed but it maintained its silence.

A head count of protesters out on the street during the past year would certainly not indicate that the good General should have been politically fearful, the Chief Justice’s long drive from Islamabad to Lahore and the weekly protests of the brave lawyers community notwithstanding. As Professor Sassen puts it, “(e)ven today, there has been no massive demonstration in any major Pakistani city… there are also diffuse millions of Pakistani citizens reluctant…..to rise on their own account.” Why then has the good General suspended the Constitution, sacked a large number in the Superior Judiciary and brutalized and incarcerated thousands? Why has the good General, like Saturn, eaten his progeny, the free media? Why then has the good General broken the promises he made to his dear friend President Bush, to his constituents and to the Pakistani Diaspora?

I believe Pervaiz Musharraf when he says that he is no Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he is the same blunt, no-nonsense, straight talking person that he was in 1999—albeit somewhat prone to corporal punishment against powerless citizens! I completely agree with General Musharraf that these acts have been forced upon him, although in my view it is not the fickleness of promises made by corrupt politicians that is to blame, instead it is the simple fact that his regime and the State he governs are in an acute political crisis. The question, however, remains unaddressed—why is there an acute political crisis given that the silence of the street continues to haunt cities like Lahore?

In my view three related factors, which are structural to military rule in Pakistan, explain the deepening crisis of governance faced by the Musharraf regime: the inability of his regime to win the popular vote in a free and fair election; the necessity of gaining political legitimacy for his Presidency; and the need to repeatedly turn to extra-constitutional measures. The tragedy for rulers like General Musharraf is that democratic constitutions that draw political legitimacy from the people, do not allow rulers to rule in the name of the Monarch, the Gun or God. The initial violation of a democratic constitution causes a crisis of political legitimacy, while the uncertainty to win a majority vote forces extra-constitutional measures that exacerbate this crisis in spite of a silent street. It is important for Pakistani citizens, state functionaries and the global political community to realize that today the country stands at the precipice of a monumental crisis of legitimacy that is likely to erode the governance ability of the state even in the short-run.

The need to draw legitimacy from the people has haunted Generals Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and now Musharraf. Consider what the fortune of General Musharaf’s political party was in the 2002 General Election. It won no more than 34% of the general seats and could only win 27% of the popular vote. It did not win a majority of the popular vote. Mind you this was at a time: when the good General was actually popular and boasted of a vibrant constituency; when the military was administering the country; and when the supposedly unpopular leaders of the two main political parties were in exile. All this did not give the General’s party anywhere near a workable electoral mandate. It appears that the quiet on the street may have entailed a double-edged sword for General Musharraf. It is worth asking why a ruler with a popular agenda; in control of the military and civil machine; and faced with political parties that were leaderless and unpopular could not ensure an electoral win for his political party.

The answer is that the patronage networks offered by mainstream political parties act as an essential intermediation device for citizens confronted by an oppressive, fractured and dysfunctional state. The challenge for military rulers is that they have not been able to reform state institutions in a way that would substitute them for these patronage networks. Moreover, their strategy of using establishment-dependent politicians to effectively compete away mainstream political parties has not worked. Historically the establishment-party may compete away some part of the network of mainstream parties but it has not been enough to ensure the Generals’ continued control over the office of the President. Like his predecessors, it is electoral uncertainty that continues to haunt General Musharraf in spite of the quiet on the street. What puzzles the good General is that in his gut he knows that economic growth in itself is not a panacea for the political and electoral conundrum that he is facing. His electoral trepeditions also indicate that he is aware that the mainstream political parties will get votes even if they cannot mobilize the street. The good General’s secret assignations with Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and now with Mian Nawaz Sharif are evidence of this awareness. It appears that the power of the vote matters even if it cannot entirely substitute for the muscle of the street, a point under-emphasized by Professor Sassen as well as by other analysts of Pakistan.

The uncertainty of electoral politics and the inability to secure absolute majorities forces military rulers, like General Musharraf, to make constitutional compromises and to take extra-constitutional steps in order to retain power. In this spiral, power can only be legalized by nominated judges and by collaborative legislatures and to achieve this control over the gun has to be maintained. However, the more extra-constitutional measures that the ruler takes the more political legitimacy is lost by the President, Government, political parties, judiciary and parliament, in short the state, even if the appointed judiciary legalizes these measures. This is because the rule of law and constitutionalism matters to citizens.

A vast majority of the citizens of Pakistan, some silently and some rather vocally, but all non-violently, today stand in opposition to General Musharraf’s regime because its actions during the past year give an appearance of a grave disregard for the organs of the State and the rule of law. While it is debatable that his act of filing a reference against the Chief Justice of Pakistan was constitutional, what is not debatable is that the sight of a police officer dragging Justice Chaudhry by his hair will be seen by citizens simply as the unadulterated exercise of the State’s coercive powers. What is not debatable is that the act of removing superior court judges, who had taken oath of office under General Musharraf’s own Provisional Constitutional Order (1999), simply because they disagreed with his legal assessment, will be seen by citizens as indicative of personalized rule. What is not debatable is that his assertion that the creation of the National Security Council will put an end to extra-constitutional actions by Military Chiefs will be seen as a statement of political expediency. What is not debatable is that the suspension of the Constitution and fundamental rights at the end of a period of five years of his government will make constitutionalism appear arbitrary to citizens, to be invoked and removed without limitation at the behest of the executive.

In short, in Pakistan today it appears to citizens that all rules of the game, even those promulgated by General Musharraf himself, are expendable at his personal whim. This undermines the political legitimacy of the state and exacerbates the crisis of governance as it brings citizens into direct and silent opposition to the state and promotes the rule of expediency, which does not bode well as it will erode the remaining vestiges of a functioning state. The opposition will manifest itself in a multitude of ways that include: street protests; swing voting; criticism of government actions; growing support for anti-government anarchic forces; lack of credibility of government—all these will have one chant in common: the state is not of the people, by the people and for the people.

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