- August 29, 1988
August 29, 1988
The new Pakistani government has started off on a reassuring note. Acting President Ghulam Ishaq Khan has pledged to go ahead with the parliamentary elections scheduled by President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who died in a plane crash. Ishaq Khan has not declared martial law, which he could have done. More important, the military so far is allowing the constitutional process to continue.
A leader of the Pakistan People’s Party who is in Washington tells me that PPP chief Benazir Bhutto is confident the new president will allow political parties to formally participate in the elections, set for Nov. 16. (The PPP is expected to win heavily in the elections.) Zia had barred the parties from nominating candidates, apparently in an attempt to keep Bhutto out in the cold. Most of Zia’s domestic political game plans had centered on keeping Bhutto at bay ever since he overthrew her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a 1977 military coup and then executed him after a controversial murder trial.
Yet Pakistan’s political tradition tends to dampen such optimism. In the country’s 41-year history, no government has emerged out of an orderly transfer of power. Power has changed hands through assassination, military coups and countercoups, civilian coups backed by generals, war and dismemberment of the country, and now through a plane crash. It remains to be seen whether the military, which has ruled the country directly or through proxies for most of its history, will now choose to stay in the barracks and let civilians run the show.
The military has several concerns about an effective civilian government.
First, most opposition parties, including the PPP, are agreed on a constitutional formula to transfer most governmental powers to the provinces. Under their recipe, the central government would be left with four areas of responsibility: defense, foreign affairs, currency and communications.
Powerful interest groups in the Punjab province, which has 60 percent of the country’s population, have resisted provincial autonomy since the birth of Pakistan. Punjab, called Pakistan’s “bastion of power,” provides 82 percent of the nation’s armed forces, almost its entire military command and more than three-quarters of the country’s higher bureaucratic echelons. A massive transfer of governmental duties to the provinces would mean that many of the jobs now held by the Punjabi-dominated central bureaucratic cadre would be lost to provincial recruits.
It also could limit the horizons of Punjab’s business and financial establishments. In 1971, a Punjabi-dominated military regime chose to let the country’s former province of East Pakistan secede to become independent Bangladesh rather than agree to the same autonomy formula being advanced by the provinces of Baluchistan, Sind and the Northwest Frontier.
A second concern of the military is that most political parties, especially Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, are committed to a normalization of relations with neighboring countries, including Afghanistan and India. Several Pakistani opposition leaders have complained to me over the years that military governments had never really tried to improve relations with Pakistan’s neighbors. The reason is that the generals feel that some tension with neighbors is necessary to justify Pakistan’s huge 500,000-man military force, the seventh-largest in the world.
Former Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo is now saying on the campaign trail that the main reason he was fired by Zia on May 29 was Junejo’s decision to sign the Geneva agreement for Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Zia strongly objected to the accord. Having dismissed Junejo, he launched his “forward policy” on Afghanistan, stepping up aid to the Mujahedeen to harass retreating Soviet troops and overthrow the Kabul regime. In the last days of his life, Zia had incurred open Soviet hostilities.
Most opposition leaders, especially Bhutto, favor more balanced relations with the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and India, while maintaining close ties to the United States and China.
Third, the Pakistani military has an inherent distrust of civilian leadership. Military officers genuinely believe the politicians will create anarchy and sell out Pakistan’s interests to the enemy.
If the military decides to seize power again, it may wait for a political feud. In each of the three military coups of the past, generals took over after a period of unrest, which they said needed the army’s attention. (Zia staged his coup hours after Bhutto confided to him and others that he would soon make peace with the opposition, which had been agitating over an apparently rigged election.)
However, another period of military rule could be disastrous for Pakistan. Like the Bangladeshis, influential groups in Sind, Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier have always identified military rule with Punjabi domination. As a result, secessionist movements have been simmering in all three provinces. Even during the civilian rule of Prime Minister Bhutto, Baluchistan rose in open revolt against his largely centralized administration, precipitating a four-year war.
In Sind, the secessionist “Jiye Sind” (Long Live Sind) movement led by octogenarian politician G.M. Sayed has been calling for the secession of that province for decades. The Sindhis, too, are piqued by Punjabi domination of their economy and politics. In addition, old Sindhis blame the central governent for dumping millions of Moslem refugees from India, Bangladesh and now Afghanistan into their province.
The Northwest Frontier, formerly part of Afghanistan, was handed to Pakistan by the departing British colonial rulers after a controversial referendum in which barely 15 percent of the Frontier people were allowed to vote. Successive Afghanistan governments and some Frontier Pashtuns remain unreconciled to the inclusion of the province in Pakistan. In recent years, though, key Frontier leaders have tempered their movement with the demand for provincial autonomy. But circumstances could change their stance.
Four decades of Punjabi political and economic dominance, which is accentuated during overt military rule, has nearly worn out the patience of elites in the three minority provinces. A new round of military rule could drive them further toward the path followed by Bangladesh. The only way to stem that drift would be to restore democracy and allow representatives of the provinces to freely shape the covenant of their partnership in Pakistan.
The ball remains in the court of the generals. If they can foresee the perils of their further intervention in politics, Pakistanis deserve to rejoice. If not, they need to repeat the prayer their first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, uttered while dying from an assassin’s bullet 37 years ago: “Khuda Pakistan ki hifazat kare” (“May God preserve Pakistan”).