Musharraf Has Gone, but Is Civilian Rule Better?

August 25, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on August 25, 2008.

As expected, Pervez Musharraf has resigned rather than face impeachment as president of Pakistan. But, despite the widespread sense that the retired army general drastically eroded the public trust while in office, there is growing doubt that a civilian government is any better equipped to improve Pakistan’s shaken economy and fragile rule of law.

In the looting and lawlessness that followed last December’s assassination of opposition politician Benazir Bhutto, Pakistanis went to the polls and voted out Mr Musharraf’s ruling party, and voted in civilian leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Asif Ali Zardari, and Pakistan Muslim League‐​Nawaz, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Immediately after civilians came to power, the country experienced a precipitous economic downturn. Now, there is a growing consensus among some of Pakistan’s business elite that the army should be back in power.

Since civilian leaders assumed power in February, capital flight has been in the billions of dollars. Inflation on the Sensitive Price Index has gone up 33 per cent, according to Pakistan’s Federal Bureau of Statistics, and demand for energy grows, even as the country is being hit by blackouts each day. With many poverty‐​stricken Pakistanis unable to stretch their money, daily crime is on the rise.

Under Mr Musharraf, Pakistan’s economy had grown at an average real rate of 7 per cent for the past five years, according to figures released by the government. Some analysts argue that those rates have been greatly overstated. But others contend that, unlike Mr Musharraf, current civilian leaders have shown themselves to be poor managers, and have not inspired confidence in the market.

With a shrinking revenue base, a recent stock market crash and a spike in commodities prices, many business leaders fear further increases in domestic inflation, and expect unemployment to rise in the months ahead.

But Najam Ali, one of Pakistan’s most influential asset management executives, believes that Pakistan’s problems began last year, under the very government the business community wants back. “It is unfair to blame this government,” Mr Ali says, “because any government must be viewed over a long period of time.”

While he contends that the Musharraf‐​led government did, in fact, show greater fiscal discipline, he also argues that his country’s current economic unrest may have more to do with the spike in global commodity prices, as well as the increase in Pakistan’s domestic demand for food, fuel and other sources of power.

Other Pakistanis speculate that the military may be purposely destabilising their country’s economy, ostensibly as a means of catapulting itself back into power.

Pakistan’s national and provincial elections in February were touted by many in Washington and Islamabad as the dawn of a new democratic era. But pervasive problems of electricity blackouts, high fuel prices and rapid food inflation have many business leaders believing that, like the East Asian tigers of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea years ago, an iron fist may be better for Pakistan’s economy than civilian leadership.

However, despite the apparent benefits of a military‐​led government, Washington and the rest should be cautious in embracing Pakistan’s military leaders, since they have consistently denied their citizens the right to a stable constitutional democracy. Overhauled constitutions, protracted periods of martial law and the overthrow of multiple civilian governments have characterised periods of military rule.

While it’s clear to many Pakistanis that the revolving door between the military establishment and the civilian bureaucracy is an extension of their country’s tumultuous past, it’s unclear that civilian leaders are a source of long‐​term stability.

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