If Pakistan’s former president, General Pervez Musharraf, returns to the country tomorrow — as he has promised, ending five years of exile — many Pakistanis will find it hard to reject him simply for his undemocratic past.
Musharraf’s planned return may remain surrounded by uncertainty till the last moment, given that he has previously promised to return, but then changed his plans. However, if Musharraf lands in Karachi, as expected, his return will coincide with an emerging election campaign that promises to remain locked in a ‘neither here nor there’ mode.
In less than two months, President Asif Ali Zardari and other ruling politicians hope to take Pakistan through what has been described as a historic political transition. The next parliamentary elections, which are planned to be held on May 11, have been widely publicised as a momentous historic event. The polls will mark the first time ever that an elected government will complete its full five-year term and successfully hand over power to the next elected government, without the military stepping in as before.
Yet, a closer look at the transition will reveal that it is neither transformational nor historic for most Pakistanis, notably those living in some of the most dismal conditions ever imaginable.
Zardari’s five-year rule may have seen the parliament complete its full term, but the same tenure has also seen one of the worst slides in economic conditions in Pakistan’s history, a failure to improve security conditions and above all a dismal failure to raise hopes for a better future for ordinary Pakistanis.
Going forward, the transition can just not mark a trendsetting moment for Pakistan if indeed the quality of government of the past five years remains largely unchanged. Indeed, its not just the physical character of a democracy which must be closely examined. More importantly, it is the spirit of that same democracy which must be acutely examined too.
The tail end of the government’s tenure saw ruling politicians scramble to fulfil self-interest as never before. On the last day of the parliament’s tenure, key government ministries, including the finance ministry, worked overtime to rush approvals for payments to one politically-charged project after another.
Amid the celebrations of the successful end to the regime’s five-year tenure, many among ruling politicians conveniently ignored the ways in which public resources have been squandered in the past five years. Behind the dismal economic performance lies a failure to tackle major challenges, notably one of the worst energy crises ever confronted by Pakistan.
Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, who, as head of the government, oversaw the completion of the five-year tenure, served as the minister of water and power just before rising to the top position. During his tenure as minister, Ashraf had time and again made promises of overseeing an end to chronic electricity shortages and even went to the extent of promising to resign if he failed to meet his objective. Yet, he neither met his own goal nor did he show the moral courage to step down.
To make matters worse, the ruling structure’s position was further compromised when confronted with numerous scandals, including those involving areas considered sacrosanct. One such tragic accomplishment was the charge of fraudulent behaviour in the ways in which the Haj pilgrimage to Makkah was organised.
Notwithstanding the celebrations surrounding the completion of the tenure, Pakistan’s economic indicators became increasingly pathetic with the passage of each year. The tenure of the government beginning in 2008 was quickly followed by Pakistan reaching out to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan programme to rescue its ailing economy. Ironically, the end of Zardari’s tenure has left Pakistan’s economy in a dismal shape and another approach to the IMF appears inevitable in the future.
Notwithstanding the democratic deficit which surrounded Musharraf’s tenure, his last year in office saw Pakistan become host to the inflow of almost $8.5 billion (Dh31.26 billion) in equity investments, foreign direct investments and receipts from privatisation combined together. While Musharraf may be denounced for usurping democracy, his overall record of holding Pakistan together cannot be easily ignored. It is therefore not surprising that his return, at least to some, appears like the emergence of hope in a country where the democracy of the past five years should have raised expectations from the community of elected politicians.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.