November 06, 2007

Pondering Pakistani People's Political Participation


It has taken me a while to make my way through the commentary about Pakistan pulsing through the 'net in the wake of Musharraf's imposition of military rule, but after a few days I've managed to do so and put together some thoughts of my own.

My undergraduate studies took a rather roundabout course. After a semester-long independent study on the Cold War my final year of high school, the closest thing I had to a regional specialization was Soviet Russia; however, having taken Japanese as my language then, I ended up selecting East Asia as my "regional track" in Boston University's International Relations program. I then proceeded to largely ignore both those areas and ended up taking courses mostly on China, after having finished a fascinating course on Chinese culture and domestic politics my freshman year. Then my senior year, after first reading Charlie Wilson's War and Ghost Wars (thank you Blake for the recommendations!), I got hooked on South Asia and political Islam under the teachings of Prof. Hussain Haqqani. This does not make the job search process go easier, let me tell you (my cover letter: "Will generalize on various subjects in exchange for pittance and a health plan").

The advantage of this all though is of course the chance to make connections between the subjects. One lesson from my studies of Chinese politics that has stuck with me is how "civil society" groups — religious bodies, environmental advocacy organizations, women's groups, etc — represent real foundational blocks in a participatory democracy, and how in the absence of democracy they can potentially serve as channels for citizens to seriously challenge the priorities and policies of the authoritarian state government (Prof. Robert Weller's Alternative Civilities: Democracy and Culture in China and Taiwan was a formative introduction to this idea).

In societies where an autocratic government imposes limits on political participation — by banning, for example, the establishment of rival political parties — even ostensibly innocuous and apolitical gatherings of individuals can potentially offer an platform for organizing the aspirations of the unrepresented. Democratic transition in Taiwan was heavily dependent on these voluntary groups' participation, and the Chinese Communist Party, observing this, has sought to curtail the organization of independent groups and NGOs on the mainland out of the fear that a similar process would depose them from power (thus, for example, the officially-endorsed and -incorporated "Patriotic Religious Associations" all practicing religious leaders are required to join). It's my understanding that many Middle Eastern leaders have been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood and other faith-based service organizations out of the fear that they too will end up serving as the framework for popular opposition to their continued autocratic rule.

So, in authoritarian societies where political participation is circumscribed, protesters may take the path of least resistance and channel their energies into groups that the state either doesn't have the power and / or the inclination to totally shut off.

Pakistan's General Musharraf is telling Western audiences that he's made his recent power play in order to shore up his ability to confront the terrorists, but the days following the coup have shown his biggest priorities to in fact be a crackdown on members of the judiciary, political opponents, and the independent media. Today the New York Times reports:

General Musharraf invited Islamabad’s diplomatic corps to his official residence on Monday to brief them on the situation and on his reasons for declaring emergency rule. But two Western diplomats said the encounter only reinforced concerns that General Musharraf was more focused on vanquishing his political rivals than on fighting terrorism.

At the meeting, the general primarily railed against his political opponents, with special venom reserved for the Supreme Court. When asked by a diplomat to describe specific plans to crack down on terrorists, General Musharraf gave only a vague answer.

“He effectively dodged the question and turned to the military presence in the room and asked them to organize a briefing for ambassadors,” said one of the Western diplomats. “It wasn’t very clear in terms of what was actually being done.”

The second Western diplomat said: “There was serious concern that terrorism and security was not front and center. What was really amazing was him going on and on and on about how bad the judiciary was.”
This is not Pakistan's first military clamp-down by any stretch, but Ahmed Rashid writes that "[n]ever before in Pakistan's sad history of military rule has a general so reviled invoked martial law to ensure his own survival".

It's remarkable — particularly given the hand-wringing fears about Pakistan's imminent Islamization should Musharraf exit the stage, a notion which Musharraf himself has of course been happy to encourage —the degree to which Islamist parties in Pakistan are not actually all that popular at the polls. Hilzoy summarizes: "[I]f we are worried about what would happen if Pakistan held democratic elections, then it seems like a good idea to focus on the support enjoyed by actual political parties. Here the polls are unanimous: none that I'm aware of has Islamist parties enjoying more than the 11% support that they received in the 2002 elections." As the Taiwan example might suggest, this is not to say that such a political victory would be impossible: Joshua Hammer, in a much-noted piece in the Atlantic Monthly, explains that
[t]he nightmare scenario for U.S. policy makers—and one reason they remain heavily invested in Musharraf—is an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. A tide of anti-American sentiment, some analysts fear, could bring to power Islamists, who would give free rein to the Taliban, spread nuclear technology to rogue states and terrorist groups, and support the mujahideen in Kashmir.

There’s no doubt that Islamists have grown in numbers and prominence in Pakistan since 9/11. In 2002, six fundamentalist parties formed an alliance called Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, and rode a wave of anger at the American-led war in Afghanistan, taking 53 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly and forming the third-largest bloc in the parliament. The alliance won outright control of the provincial assembly in the North-West Frontier Province, and it now governs Balochistan in a coalition with Musharraf’s ruling party. During the weeks that I spent in Islamabad earlier this year, the MMA repeatedly flexed its muscles in noisy protests—weekly demonstrations against legislation offering further legal protections to women, rallies against the government’s razing of illegal makeshift mosques that have sprung up throughout the city. The demonstrations brought out hundreds of police officers and paralyzed traffic in the city for hours.

Moderate Muslims in Pakistan are worried about the Islamists’ rising profile: Pervez Hood­bhoy, chairman of the Quaid-e-Azam University physics department, told me that the university has been “taken over” by Islamist fervor—more hijabs in the classrooms, more prayer, and “no bookstores, but three mosques with a fourth under construction” on campus. Hood­bhoy, a highly regarded nuclear physicist and a critic of military rule, told me that an Islamist takeover of the country, either by outright domination of the electoral process or in conjunction with a radical Islamist general, “is a real possibility.”
Hammer, continues, however, by reinforcing Hilzoy's statistics when he explains that
despite their clout in parliament and their seeming strength on the street, the Islamists are not widely popular: Their parties won only 11 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections (gerrymandering gave them a share of seats far greater than their numbers). Even in their stronghold, the North-West Frontier Province, they polled only 26 percent. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the MMA’s growth is its abysmal record of governance: In the North-West Frontier Province, which the alliance controls, social services are disintegrating. Unless anti-Western sentiment reaches sustained and unprecedented levels, the Islamists seem highly unlikely to muster enough votes to gain control of parliament in the next decade.
Pakistan actually has a number of pretty well-established secular political parties, but because of their potential to challenge his power it is they, not the militants or the Islamists, who Musharraf is targeting in his crackdown. Joshua Kurlantzick writes at The New Republic:
[Y]ears of a political vacuum under Musharraf meant that young Pakistani democrats, exactly the type of people the country needs to escape its feudal past, could not organize or build grassroots movements. When Musharraf finally agreed to allow greater political freedoms this year, the only politicians who could move into the vacuum were two feudal dinosaurs, former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Neither are paragons of democracy: Under Bhutto, Pakistan suffered an endemic of extrajudicial executions and torture, while Sharif was dismissed as prime minister for alleged massive corruption.
The only thing to add here is none of this began with Musharraf. Pakistan has never really had a chance to develop an effective governing class because whenever they've strayed from Army orthodoxy, coups have thrown them out of power. Having a weak and frequently corrupt political establishment serves Pakistani Army interests by offering easy pretexts for intervention and ready handles for less public manipulation when military rule is not overt. What to do if you're a Pakistani citizen who's fed up with this state of affairs? The Islamist program's appeal is not a special mystery, here.

The Chinese Communist Party currently has the power and the inclination to restrict independent religious organizations within the Chinese state (although even they have been forced to permit a burgeoning network of environmental NGOs). Musharraf, lacking in electoral legitimacy, presiding over a state whose economy and institutions are teetering on the edge of failure, and whose military predecessors have historically embraced Pakistan's Islamic identity as a strategy for overcoming ethnic and economic divisions in the face of a powerful and hostile Indian neighbor, does not have the means to do so. While I imagine it's fairly unlikely he would effect an about-face and embark on a program of Islamization to match a predecessor like Zia-ul-Haq, I find it even less likely that he will find the means to launch a more concerted effort against Afghan and Pakistani Taliban forces in the tribal areas, even assuming he retains the desire to do so.

Out of concerns for their own power Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani military establishment have retarded the development of the mainstream Pakistani political parties and weakened other institutions either through design or neglect; they simultaneously lack the means and will to confront separatist and terrorist movements which use the religion of Islam as a means of mobilization and organization. With other avenues of political participation restricted, Pakistan's gradual radicalization should not be unexpected. These groups' power will continue to wax, rather than wane, so long as Musharraf continues to cling to power, with serious strategic implications for America. While I don't want to overstate the degree to which the U.S. is able influence this process now — the military is deeply entrenched in Pakistani politics and will remain so for the forseeable future, as Hammer's article relates — I agree with Kurlantzick that it's time to recognize that our the perpetuation of Musharraf's rule is not serving our interests. Unless the political process is opened up through his removal, I think we can expect to see Islamist-based parties play an ever-growing role in Pakistan, and to the degree to which they cooperate and sympathize with groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban that is going to be that much more of a Bad Thing.

Ok, back to job applications now.