As Democracy Dawns in Pakistan, Challenges Remain

"Democracy is the best revenge." These words of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto must have reverberated in the minds of millions of Pakistanis today, as Pakistan took its first steps toward the true democracy that General Pervez Musharraf promised over eight years ago but could not deliver. The National Assembly elected Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani of the Pakistan Peoples' Party Prime Minister with an overwhelming 2/3rds majority of 264 votes. His opponent, Pervez Elahi of Musharraf's supporting Pakistan Muslim League Q Group garnered only 42 votes. Significantly, the first executive order of the new Prime Minister was the release of the 60 judges, including the Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, from house arrest. A host of lawyers and members of civil society marked their new freedom this evening with an impromptu procession to the former Chief Justice's home where they raised the Pakistan flag. Standing with him on the balcony as this scene unfolded were fellow Justice Tariq Mahmood and the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan, who led the lawyers' movement against Musharraf. This flag that had been removed when Musharraf dismissed and incarcerated the Chief Justice through an executive order as the Chief of Army Staff on November 3, 2007. He later had this extra-constitutional order validated by his self-appointed Supreme Court.

Today Prime Minister Gillani promised to restore supremacy to parliament, ending the ersatz presidential system that Musharraf had introduced in Pakistan in contravention of its constitution. Gillani also promised to restore the judiciary to its rightful place. Against this background, a report emerged that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will be visiting Pakistan tomorrow to meet with Musharraf. Might it not make sense for the United States administration to finally recognize that power is shifting in Pakistan to parliament and that the presidency will need to return to its titular role without the power to make decisions on behalf of the people of Pakistan? If so, Negroponte's first call should be on the Prime Minister. And tempting though it may be, he should avoid trying to sweep the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, into the US' stifling embrace. Kayani has promised to take the army back to its professional roots and away from politics. The US needs to stop trying to portray Kayani as a special friend of America. The US now should let the leaders of Pakistan act on behalf of Pakistan. This political change of today may also provide Kayani an opportunity to make his own changes in the army's high command that Musharraf had stuffed with his favorites before handing over to Kayani last November.

The election of the Prime Minister marked some huge landmarks in Pakistani politics: first, this is the first time that the PPP has a Prime Minister who is not a Bhutto. Indeed, for the first time, the PPP has a Prime Minister from the Punjab, a key province in Pakistan's polity. Significantly, Gillani is from Southern Punjab, an area that borders Bhutto's native Sindh province. Second, for the first time, the leaders of the major two political parties in the coalition government, the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League N Group are not sitting in parliament nor heading the government. Both Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chair of the PPP and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif of the PML N will run their party's affairs outside the national assembly. Meanwhile an isolated and seriously wounded Musharraf watched these developments from Army House, lacking direct command of the army, previously his sole "vote bank." Moreover, he has no meaningful political support in the national assembly, as today's vote attested. His extra-legal steps of the past one year are now subject to challenge and risk being overturned by the new coalition government, with its two-thirds majority. Even the PML Q's majority coalition in the upper house, the Senate, risks being depleted now in the wave of change that emerged from the lower house today and may be unable to block any constitutional changes passsed by the lower house.

In the flush of victory, the Pakistan Peoples' Party of Bhutto and its coalition partners should pause to take stock of the enormous challenges they face in trying to dismantle eight years of autocratic rule. They will need to hold the coalition together, as individual party objectives clash. Both Sharif and Zardari will have to strongly resist the temptation to call all shots and allow the new Prime Minister to manage the business of government. As a start, the new government could set the tone for its tenure by keeping to a small cabinet rather than the 70 member cabinet of the previous regime that allowed all coalition partners and party factions in parliament to be bought off with ministries.

The other major challenge will be to avoid repeating the past politics of spoils and cronyism that created disillusionment among the population and eventually allowed the army to reassert itself as the key political player on the scene. Restoring the political system should be the first priority. Another major issue will be the restoration of balance to the economy that has had imbalanced growth and recently saw a resurgence of inflation and shortages of key staples and energy. Though it may be tempting for the new government to destroy the local governments that Musharraf's regime introduced, it may be in the longer term interest of the new government to strengthen these local institutions by giving them greater fiscal and financial autonomy, something that the previous regime resisted. Bringing government closer to the people can only be good for governance. If there are any failures, the independent media in Pakistan with their new-found freedoms will pose sharp challenges to any government n Pakistan today.

Finally, on the security front, the government will need to seriously study and take over the fight against militancy in Pakistan to attack its root causes. It will need to work with the military in this regard to ensure that there is a proper balance between politico-economic measures and military actions in the border region where Al Qaeda and the homegrown Taliban now threaten Pakistan's stability. Short-term salves and deals will not do the trick. Indeed, the amalgamation of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into Pakistan proper may need to be put on the fast track. And, the new government will need to carry forward the initiatives that Musharraf launched to normalize relations with India, to reduce the defence burden on Pakistan's economy, and to allow it to divert resources toward education and health. Some 50 million of Pakistan's children have slipped through the education net, according to estimates by leading economist Parvez Hasan. The new government will have to turn back this dismal tide.

Pakistan has to play catch up economically and politically. Parliamentary democracy offers it a great chance. Will the politicians live up to these challenges? The time for celebration will be short. And, as the new government will no doubt discover, the time to get the country back on track may also be too short.

Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within for Oxford University Press (May 2008). He has widely written and spoken on military and politico-economic issues on radio, television, and at think tanks. He can be reached at www.shujanawaz.com