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November 2, 1999
Few dissenting voices in Pakistan
Been Sarwar in Lahore
There has been a general relief at Nawaz Sharif's removal from the political scene, but for many it is tempered with dread at what the new military set-up will mean for Pakistan.
Past experiences with military rule here have not been happy or brought any change for the better.
The twelve years under Gen Zia-ul Haq are still fresh in many minds, and the constitutional changes he bulldozed through, as a self-appointed president, in the name of Islam are still wreaking havoc within the legal system.
Yet, the dictatorial traits assumed by the sacked democratically elected government have provided many, including liberals, with the justification of supporting the military take-over.
The situation is summed up by prominent rights activist and lawyer Asma Jahangir in a hard-hitting comment published in several newspapers last week: ''An unpopular, autocratic and dangerously inept prime minister has been dismissed. His exit has brought relief to all who could not live a secure life in a country where basic human rights were violated as a rule. This sigh of relief has preoccupied the people to the exclusion of worrying about the future of the democratic process.''
But she also points to the principles that need to be adhered to, adding that while Sharif's misgovernance can be seen as a reason for the desperation to remove him, it does not justify an army coup d'etat.
''The Sharif government's greatest fault lay in violating all norms of justice, law and democratic traditions. So has the general's action by taking over a country trampling over the Constitution. There cannot be two standards for judging the same nature of actions, one for civilians and the other for the army.''
But there are two standards, partly due to ''relief that the chief of army staff does not wear a beard and speak the language of Gen Zia or the Taliban,'' wrote economist Akbar Zaidi, lashing out at liberals supporting the military take-over in an article for The News on Sunday.
''They are the same ones who backed the World Bank's Moeen Qureshi when he was caretaker prime minister in 1993,'' he says. ''This time, they are openly stating that they want the military to stay for some time, two years at least, so it can cleanse the democratic stables of their undemocratic components.''
Zaidi, like a minuscule few other dissenting voices, warns that ''by supporting this intrusion of the military in Pakistan's politics, next time they may get the worst end of the stick.''
While most political groups have chosen to ignore these factors and welcomed the military set-up, dissenting voices like Jahangir's and Zaidi's are supported by fringe parties like the Labour Party of Pakistan and the Social Democratic Movement, which have demanded a return to democracy.
''There has to be a general principled stand,'' argues Farooq Tariq, general secretary of the LPP. ''If the general consciousness is retrogressive, we have to show the way forward.''
He believes that talking to people is the answer. He said he addressed a public meeting at the Karachi Press Club a few days after the military take-over, and received a good response.
At the meeting he predicted that the new regime would be ''very repressive -- the fundamental rights he (Gen Musharraf) has guaranteed won't remain for long.''
His view appeared to be vindicated a few days later, when the Labour Party's office and press in Lahore was raided by a truckload of military men. They questioned the publisher and confiscated the remaining issues of the LPP's recent newsletter, the cover of which was emblazoned: ''no to martial law.''
Subscribers' copies had already gone out, which is what provoked the raid, believes Tariq.
The raid has been condemned by many non-government organisations working for social and political change, like the Joint Action Committee, an umbrella body of over 30 NGOs in Lahore which has also spoken out against the military take-over.
The committee was at the forefront of opposition to Sharif's proposed 15th amendment of the Constitution which would have given the federal government even more sweeping powers in the name of Islam. It has also been vehemently anti-nuclear.
Gen Musharraf has said his administration would be working to restore the harmony between Pakistan's four provinces. The Sharif government had antagonised provincial governments by championing the cause of Punjab, the prime minister's home province.
However, there are misgivings about the military's ability to promote unity in the federation. ''Its very ethos lies in the centralisation of power,'' observes an activist in Lahore.
The military ruler has set an ambitious agenda: promising accountability, economic revival and institution-building to the people of Pakistan.
Given there are no quick-fix solutions, the tasks will not be easy to achieve. And those who are expecting a miracle from the military, may be the first to voice their disaffection.
Cautions Jhangir: ''Our political leadership should take this situation far more seriously than they have in the past. They mocked the very system that brought them to power and paved the way for yet another army takeover.
''They must clean the mess they have all created together with the army and partly the judiciary. None is above blame, least of all the people who dance to the tune of marching drums.''
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