A Failed Charm Offensive
A Failed Charm Offensive
Flare-Ups and Frustration as Kashmir Waits for a Vote
Flare-Ups and Frustration as Kashmir Waits for a Vote
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

A Failed Charm Offensive

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's charm offensive in Europe at the end of January was ultimately more on the offensive side than on the charming one.

At a breakfast meeting in Brussels, he certainly won no converts among journalists and non-governmental organisation representatives when he criticised the West's "obsession" with democracy and human rights, saying that in Pakistan's political environment, these things would take time and have to conform to local specifics: "We have a tribal and feudal environment," he said, "so we have to adapt democracy as we go forward".

As most of his audience well knew, the reason Pakistan lost its democracy has nothing to do with tribes or vestiges of feudal society. The fact is, in 1999, Musharraf staged a military coup and stripped power from a democratically elected government. And last year, when the Supreme Court was just about to disqualify Musharraf from the presidency, he sacked the judges and declared martial law, steamrolling the constitution yet again amid mass arrests of lawyers, opposition politicians and human rights activists.

It is not tribalism or feudalism that prevents democracy in Pakistan. It is an authoritarian leader who does not want to give up power.

Musharraf's attempt to re-brand himself by ditching the military uniform should fool no one. New wool or not, it is still the same old wolf.

He also assured the Brussels audience of his ability to fight terrorism, claiming that Pakistan is on the winning side against al Qaeda; and that where there were once hundreds of terrorists, there are now few and scattered in the mountains.

Following 9/11, Pakistan did indeed arrest hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban suspects and even handed over a few high-level al-Qaeda members. But the list of what Musharraf has not done to combat terrorism is far longer. Pakistan has refused to close Taliban camps and jihadi madrassas or end extremist recruitment and fundraising. If Musharraf was truly fighting extremism and promoting democracy, he would not have released 28 prisoners accused of terrorism during the martial law period while filling jails with lawyers and journalists.

Falling for the spin

One thing Musharraf told his Brussels audience was correct, however. He said the international response to the situation in Pakistan was clouded by misperceptions and misunderstandings. This is certainly true and is only reinforced when Europeans and Americans keep falling for Musharraf's spin on his country's plight.

The truth is Pakistan under Musharraf's military dictatorship has become more and more dangerous and destabilised with each passing year. Only a legitimate government, freely and fairly elected, can start getting the country back on track.

Only a moderate, truly civilian government can make the difficult choices to rein in extremism. The Pakistani armed forces should leave government to civilians so they can then focus on tackling extremists.

Society will only continue to fracture and violence escalate unless people feel they have a legitimate representative government. Musharraf's continued efforts to cling to power at all costs are incompatible with national reconciliation.

What Pakistan really needs is the full restoration of its constitution, including an independent judiciary and constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms of speech, association and assembly. Safeguards protecting against illegal arrest and detention need to be put in place.

The coming February elections, will (if not further postponed) be a farce if they are presided over by Musharraf's handpicked caretaker government, electoral commission and judiciary. Free and fair elections can only be held once Musharraf resigns, and a new caretaker government appointed and the election commission reconstituted, in agreement with all major political parties.

Interviewed by the BBC in Davos a few days after his Brussels speech, Musharraf said he would leave office when the people no longer wanted him. It was another bizarre statement, very distant from any reality on the ground, where the population is overwhelmingly fed up with military rule and Musharraf's governance. If he was really listening, he would be long gone.

There seem to be two Pakistans: the one described by the Pakistani president to Europe at the end of January, and the real one, where the vast majority of people want him to leave as soon as possible.

The siren calls of authoritarian leaders promising stability are sometimes seductive, but Musharraf's attempts to woo European leaders were conspicuously unpersuasive.

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