Wed, 18 Oct 2000

A year on, Musharraf still on probation

SINGAPORE: One year after he rid Pakistan of a discredited elected leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf remains an enigma. He has as many critics who have marked him down as just another dictator, as supporters who believe in him. The latter group contends that one year is barely enough just to do the conceptual planning for better governance in all respects -- economic, moral and electorally.

This is reasonable, until one remembers that Gen. Musharraf set himself a deadline of three years -- validated by the Supreme Court -- to end military rule by Oct 12, 2002. Then it gets harder to fight off the skepticism, quite natural in a country which has been ruled by the army almost as long as by elected governments since it gained independence.

With one full year taken up by policy setting, it is pertinent to question whether he could, within the next two years, stabilize the economy, have a parliament elected, minimize internal divisions and restore the people's trust in their institutions.

Above all, Pakistan's militaristic posture does not endear itself to those nations and lending institutions whose support is crucial. For engaging India in a nuclear-arms race and over Kashmir, it diverted 28 per cent of the 1997 Budget towards the military, for example.

The vote for education and health currently is only one- seventh of that. Such lopsided 1 allocations should not be derided -- for Pakistan is manic about self-preservation in a harsh sub-continent -- but they do not begin to make a dent on the high illiteracy and infant-mortality 2 rates.

But judge Gen. Musharraf on the results so far. Then his record does not look that black; certainly matters are more positive for Pakistanis, if marginally, than was three the case when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in charge. His reform course had three main goals -- prepare the country for parliamentary elections by 2002; revitalize the economy; clean up corruption.

The electoral path is what causes most angst, and the issue the legitimacy of his regime will be judged on. Non-party local elections in 18 districts are scheduled to take place from December until July next year. This devolution plan, according to the authorities, is meant to empower the people in a society long dominated by feudal sects and a Western-educated elite.

The general's critics say barring parties from the contest would accentuate divisive tendencies; the response is that the necessary change to the political culture, culminating in parliamentary elections, will supplant the "sham democracy" Sharif designed. Judgment is best stayed. The conduct of the polls and the turnout will be telling factors. Pakistanis owe themselves a little favor to take a hand in their own destiny.

The economy is more problematic, however, and the corruption fight decidedly so. The rise in gross domestic product masks invidious shortcomings which, it is true, would take more time and better-equipped leaders 4 to tackle. The underground economy is huge.

The distortion is shown vividly in the figure of not many more than one million taxpayers in a population of 138 million. As for corruption, Gen. Musharraf has simply not shown the nerve required to make an impression on an entrenched habit that reaches right up to the country's commanding heights (such as the military).

All that is depressing, which one year could not change much. Pakistanis have only one yardstick to judge the military regime by, and that is whether things had been better since last October. They have not got worse. Not quite an endorsement for Gen. Musharraf, but it is premature to give him a failed grade either.

-- The Straits Times / Asia News Network