Has General Pervez Musharraf dropped the mask that had made him a favourite of the West: a military ruler willing to live with a free media and a relatively freer judiciary?
The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan empowers only the President to promulgate Emergency under which certain powers of the provinces get transferred to the federal government. It also enables the ruling dispensation to extend the life of the national assembly by a year.
But for reasons best known to him, Musharraf has issued a provisional constitutional order in his capacity as the Chief of the Army Staff. Opposition leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman points out that what Pakistan has today is de facto martial law. “If it were an Emergency, how could it mean suspension of the very Constitution under which it has been imposed?” wondered an Islamabad-based lawyer.
From initial reports, it is obvious that the brunt of the General’s move has been borne by the judiciary and the media. Private TV channels have been taken off air, troops have been deployed at the Supreme Court and Aitzaz Ahsan of the PPP who fought Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary’s case has been placed under arrest.
Ahsan is also the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.
These steps, if taken under the so-called emergency powers, fly in the face of a 1998 Supreme Court judgement. On imposition of emergency after the 1998 nuclear tests in India and Pakistan that triggered sanctions against Islamabad, the Court had upheld the Government’s action barring the suspension of fundamental rights.
Against this backdrop, the clampdown on the press by the Musharraf regime only reinforces the impression that Pakistan could be under martial law the General had scrupulously avoided imposing all these years to distinguish himself from the likes of Zia-ul-Haq. In fact, MQM chief Altaf Hussain often cited this dissimilarity to justify his support of Musharraf.
By the same logic, this writer had once asked Asif Zardari whether he would describe Musharraf as a benign military ruler. In response Benazir Bhutto’s husband had said: “It is a charade to deny the democratic forces the kind of audience they always had in the West during military rule in Pakistan.’’
Ironically, the departure of Zardari’s spouse for Dubai earlier this week was the first indication of Musharraf contemplating suspension of return to democracy. There is indeed a flip side to Musharraf’s seemingly unpopular decision. Terrorist violence is on the rise and the morale of Pakistani troops abysmally low. The General desperately needed to show that he was fighting back the jehadis.
But the first impression is that of a blow being dealt to the forces of democracy.