Fri, 04 May 2001

May Day tests Pakistani leadership

By Gagan Deep

LONDON: May Day in Pakistan seems to have been too difficult an acid test of the democratic resolve of the country's military rulers. Despite Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf's promise two months ago that, as the Supreme Court had insisted, he would return Pakistan to democratic rule by October 2002, he banned May Day demonstrations in Karachi by the main opposition group -- the 16-party Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) -- and arrested its leaders.

The general had made no secret of his irritation over the demonstrations. "Those who are useless should stay at home," he said at an official function in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, "We will not tolerate instability".

Nor did the army let itself be taken unawares; arrests began a week ago all over Pakistan. According to Dawn, Pakistan's leading daily, 700 people had been arrested in Karachi and another 150 across Sind province alone. On April 30, thousands of police and paramilitary units sealed off the center of Karachi to prevent opposition party activists from getting to Nishtar Park, the planned venue for the rally. Small demonstrations around Empress Market were quickly crushed by more arrests.

According to Ejaz Shaffi, a former National assembly member and a senior ARD official, over 25,000 security force personnel had been deployed in Karachi alone in a major demonstration of the army's determination to contain the situation. Nor was this the first such demonstration. Last March, a similar opposition rally was blocked in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, and the army continues to forbid any political activity throughout the country.

The army's intransigence has attracted international condemnation. The United States has voiced its concern and human rights groups have been more outspoken. Amnesty International pointed out that the rallies offered no threat to public order and no arrests should have been made. It called for the army's ban to be lifted. Pakistan's own independent Human Rights Commission added its voice to the condemnation of government repression there.

The muscular official response to ARD attempts to organize rallies and demonstrations has led observers to question whether the army's commitment to the restoration of democracy is genuine. Local elections are due to be completed in August, officially as part of the military's attempt to devolve power but mainstream political parties will not be allowed to participate. Interestingly enough, each of the new councils has guaranteed representation for religious groups and women, in an attempt to break away from corrupt male control of political life but the exclusion of the parties suggests that the army intends to retain its guiding hand over the political process.

Since one of Gen. Musharraf's promises when he seized power was that he would root out corruption, this is hardly surprising. According to the government's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, last January 10,500 civil servants had already been charged with corruption, mainly in provincial government.

It does not augur well for a real return to democracy, however, and the opposition parties have been quick to seize the army's past to illustrate the point. Both Gen. Ayub Khan, who seized power in the 1960s, and Gen. Zia ul-Haq, 20 years later, created nominated assemblies, rather than allowing for direct elections. Analysts fear that Gen. Musharraf may do the same and that the guaranteed representation for social and gender groups in the local councils is a first step in this direction.

To add to Pakistan's woes, a water shortage is having a severe effect on the cash-strapped country's economy. Rising fuel oil imports for thermal power generation and shrinking crop yields are also costing about US$1.1 billion a year, according to a recent statement by Pakistan's finance minister Shaukat Aziz.

He has, however, had some good news to report as well, for the IMF, at its recent meeting in Washington, has decided to renew its lending program to Pakistan. The program was cut off during the Kargil crisis and the military takeover in 1999 at American behest.

Now, however, the Bush administration has lifted its objections and $980 million is to be provided this year alone. A total of $180 million of this sum is for drought relief and the rest is in project and structural assistance. According to an editorial in Dawn recently, the Musharraf government's determination to carry out structural reform also helped to convince the IMF to renew its support.

No doubt Gen. Musharraf is sincere in his determination to achieve real change in Pakistan's creaking government and economy. But he faces the same problem as his predecessors.

In the end civilian politicians will have to take over and, if he does not accept them into the political arena soon, the tensions he faces in Lahore and Karachi today will become a real crisis that might even threaten the army's own credibility in the future.

-- Observer News Service