Release Date: October 18, 1999
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Shed No Tears For Pakistan's Sham Democracy

by Eric Margolis

WASHINGTON DC -- Pakistan's armed forces finally overthrew the crumbling government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif this week after he tried to dismiss the army commander and riots erupted across the troubled nation.

While the outside world wrung its hands over the latest crisis for Pakistan's so-called `democracy,' this act of political amputation was greeted with joy by most Pakistanis, who were fed up by the incompetence, growing corruption, and increasingly autocratic behavior of the highly unpopular Nawaz government. The military appeared to have once again rescued Pakistan from itself.

I interviewed Prime Minister Sharif at length in 1992 at his home in Lahore. After hours of conversation, I was left with the feeling that the businessman- turned politician was cunning, but remarkably shallow, one of the most unimpressive national leaders I've ever met. How could this deeply limited man run Pakistan, I wondered?

We shouldn't weep for Nawaz, who may be tried for corruption with his powerful brother and other members of his extended family - just as Nawaz put his predecessor, the ousted Benazir Bhutto, on trial on similar charges. Holding public office in Pakistan is seen as a license to steal, if not for the leader, then certainly for the leader's family, relatives and political cronies.

The bungling Nawaz must bear the blame for Pakistan's national humiliation in July after Kashmiri mujihadin, supplied by the Pakistani Army, occupied heights overlooking Kargil on the Indian-held side of disputed Kashmir. Nawaz was summoned to Washington, dressed down in public by President Clinton, and ordered to pull the mujihadin back.

Nawaz, who approved the assault designed to bring the forgotten Kashmir dispute to world attention, first disclaimed any Pakistani involvement, then caved in to US pressure, pulled back the Kashmiri fighters, and blamed his generals for the `rogue operation.' The army was furious and took its revenge on Tuesday.

We should waste no tears for Pakistan's sham democracy either, which was tribal warfare and pillage conducted behind a façade of mock democratic institutions. It's unfortunate soldiers must run Pakistan, an important, strategic nation of 140 million, the world's seventh most populous country, that was created in 1947 - a sort of Muslim version of Israel – as a haven and beacon of Islamic progress and good government. But democracy has never taken root in Pakistan, a riotous, only half-formed nation that ranks as one of the most difficult countries on earth to govern.

The military, which is the only institution that works in Pakistan, has ruled the nation for almost half its 52 years of life. The generals at least brought a good measure of national stability and relative honesty. The regime of Gen. Zia ul-Haq has the best relations with India of any Pakistani government since 1947. But the tough generals were no better than the politicians at solving Pakistan's grave economic problems.

Pakistan's feeble US$61 billion economy is only one –tenth that of Canada. Most of the government's income is gobbled up by the 587,000-man armed forces and debt repayment, leaving only crumbs for education, infrastructure, and health. Seven-times larger India is attempting to spend Pakistan into the ground through a massive conventional and nuclear arms race that neither nation can afford. Without the life-support of foreign loans from the IMF, World Bank, and wealthy nations, Pakistan's economy would collapse, plunging the nation into economic and political chaos that might tempt India to invade Pakistan just as it did former East Pakistan(now Bangladesh) in 1971, and detach the southern Pakistani province of Sind as an Indian protectorate.

The general's revolt was also a reaction to too much heavy-handed American interference in Pakistani affairs, notably the Kargil fiasco, Washington punishing embargo of Pakistan's economy and military over the nuclear issue, and bitter disagreement about Afghanistan.

Washington riposted this week by denouncing the coup, threatening to halt aid from the `independent' IMF and World Bank and claiming – quite falsely – that nefarious Islamic forces led by the Afghan Taliban, were taking over Pakistan. In truth, Pakistan's generals are staunchly pro-western and barely influenced by Pakistan's loud but impotent Islamic parties, who have done embarrassingly poorly in recent elections. Two influential retired Islamist generals had nothing to do with the coup.

Pakistan's military does not want to openly rule, so it will try to establish a government of civilian technocrats that will quiet foreign criticism. When this fails to work, the generals may have to turn to Pakistan's sole remaining legitimate national political leader, exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who is now watching events from London. Benazir is, of course, delighted to see her nemesis, Nawaz, overthrown, as she told me this week, but is waiting to see how events unfold. Washington, which lately gave Benazir the cold shoulder in favor of the compliant Nawaz, is once again courting her.

India put its armed forces on alert this week and expressed deep concern the new Pakistani regime would counter-attack in Kashmir. But Pakistan's generals know they would lose any major war with India and are more cautious than civilian politicians. Besides, Pakistan's soldiers will have their hands full trying to once again govern an obstreperous, maddeningly complex nation that resolutely refuses to be governed.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada, and the author of War At The Top Of The World.]

Copyright © 1999 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
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