Ghulam Haniff has watched many a crisis shake the democracy in his native Pakistan over the years.
But the current flareup represents a more serious threat than even Pakistan has seen in the past, said Haniff, a political science professor at St. Cloud State University.
In essence, Haniff said, Pakistan — and, by extension, the United States which relies on Pakistan to help combat terrorism — is caught in a dilemma: How much democracy can the Central Asian nation afford right now if it wishes to preserve any chance for democracy?
Haniff was a small boy in 1947 when Pakistan and India shed British rule and became independent nations. Democracy was the founding ideal, Haniff said, and the first head of state, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had been schooled in democratic principles as a student in England. But he died in 1948.
Replay of the past
To the people who succeeded Jinnah, “democracy was just a theoretical thing,” Haniff said.
In 1958, for example, the president suspended Pakistan’s constitution, imposed martial law and canceled scheduled elections. Eventually a civilian government took power. But the cycle was set to repeat itself over the years.
And so, the situation today is in many respects a replay of the past. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president who seized power from an elected government eight years ago, has suspended the Constitution, restricted civil liberties, ousted judges, shut down television stations and thrown doubt upon elections that had been scheduled for January.
These are unusual times, though, even for Pakistan, Haniff said. He left the country as a boy but returned often over the years.
“This period of Pakistani history is very different from previous periods,” Haniff said. “Today lots of organized groups, mostly religious ones, have emerged. They are not sold on the idea of democracy. What they want to do is to take over the power and then create an Islamic state.”
Pakistan is 97 percent Muslim, according to the U.S. State Department. And it is a deeply religious country, Haniff said. But he doubts most Pakistanis are ready to abandon their democratic ideal, despite the considerable flaws in its practice over the years.
“The people want to elect their government,” he said. “They don’t want a government foisted on them from the top.”
And so the question of how far Musharraf can go is “very touchy,” Haniff said.
U.S. faces tradeoff
Despite mounting anger in Pakistan over the president’s authoritarian tactics, “there are some Pakistanis who support him,” Haniff said. “They say he might be able to keep the country together and create a degree of stability… . It’s a very difficult tradeoff.”
And even while the United States scolds Musharraf, it also faces a tough tradeoff as it contemplates the possibility that a nuclear armed nation could be controlled by Islamic groups that have been sympathetic with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The State Department summarizes the U.S.-Pakistan relationship this way: “Since September 2001, Pakistan has provided extensive assistance in the war on terror by capturing more than 600 al-Qaida members and their allies… . President Bush visited Pakistan in March 2006, where he and President Musharraf reaffirmed their shared commitment to a broad and lasting strategic partnership.”
The sobering reality is that the United States needs Pakistan’s army on its side in the region. And it is unlikely that Musharraf’s political rival, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, could deliver the same level of army support as Musharraf can, Haniff said.
“This is a decisive time in Pakistan,” Haniff said. “Unfortunately, there are no good options.”