Bush, Musharraf & Pakistan's Democracy

by Laura Snedeker

Pakistanis rejected religious extremism and authoritarian rule last week as moderate parties won a landslide victory, marginalizing President Pervez Musharraf and pro-Taliban parties in the frontier provinces. Underwhelmed by the results, the Bush administration issued vague congratulations to the winners and reiterated its support for Musharraf.

The parliamentary elections delivered a blow to the pro-government Pakistani Muslim League-Q and empowered the parties of Musharraf’s two main political rivals, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December. Until recently, Sharif had been living in exile, after Musharraf ousted him during a coup in 1999.

Instead of jumping for joy at the poor performance by Muslim extremist parties and encouraging democracy in Pakistan, President George Bush issued a thinly-veiled threat to Pakistan’s new majority. “It’s now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government,” he said. “The question then is, will they be friends of the United States? I certainly hope so.”

Hope so, or demand so? The last time the Bush administration appeared so openly hostile to the democratic process in the Middle East was after Hamas swept the Palestinian parliamentary elections two years ago and the United States and the European Union cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. Neither of Pakistan’s victorious parties ideologically resembles Hamas and the U.S. is unlikely to shun the new government as long as the new coalition refrains from impeaching Musharraf.

“We’ve got interests in helping make sure there’s no safe haven from which people can plot and plan attacks against the United States of America and Pakistan,” Bush said at a press conference following the election.

Musharraf, a former Pakistani army general who seized power and aided Taliban militants prior to Sept. 11 was persuaded with the promise of American military aid to help the United States in the so-called “War on Terror.” Since then, Musharraf has been a staunch ally, receiving only token criticism from his benefactor even when he fired the nation’s chief justice and imposed emergency rule.

The Bush administration sees no contradiction in supplying the often brutal Pakistani regime with military aid and advisors while championing democracy as the key to a functional society and a deterrent to terrorists in Iraq. Musharraf’s increasingly shaky rule and his inability to reign in militants on the border with Afghanistan have contributed to discontent, but the Bush administration and the Pentagon would rather take their chances with a reliable ally than allow reformers to pursue their own strategy.

In return for allowing the U.S. military to operate with impunity in Pakistan’s tribal border region, the Department of Defense has dispatched nearly $1 billion each year for the last six years in response to the Pakistani government’s request for money to maintain its army. That money is the United States’ stamp of approval on Musharraf’s rule, since he derives most of his power from the military. The new parliamentary majority must weigh the cost of continued military aid with the cost of incurring the army’s rancor. Additionally, a different strategy in the fight against militants in the border region could diminish the U.S. military’s role, a change the Bush administration would not appreciate.

The Bush administration’s obvious displeasure over the election results demonstrates its unease with democracy and sends a clear message that the United States has more right to determine a country’s future than its citizens have. That the opposition’s gain is interpreted as America’s loss speaks volumes about our commitment to democracy and the incompatibility of the War on Terror with the right to self-determination.

(For more background on Pakistan, please see these archival posts: "Executive Powers;" and "Pakistan: Where Terror Trumps Democracy.")

(The photo of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and President George W. Bush is from a White House meeting in 2004. The White House photo is by Tina Hager and is in the public domain.)

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