In Pakistan, political and economic crises stir nostalgia for military rule

Beckoned by public spigots promising free, pure drinking water, tourists lined up last week to refresh themselves along the main drag in Murree, a summer resort town perched at 7,500 feet in the Himalayas.

They soon discovered that the taps were dry.

Paramilitary soldiers patrol a street of a scrap market in Karachi June 15, 2012. Shopkeepers slam down their metal shutters whenever trouble looms.

Paramilitary soldiers patrol a street of a scrap market in Karachi June 15, 2012. Shopkeepers slam down their metal shutters whenever trouble looms.

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“We’ve gotten nothing,” said one thirsty visitor, Abdul Sattar, 47. And he wasn’t just talking about pani (water), which hasn’t reached Murree for weeks because severe power shortages have shut down pumping stations in the valley below.

Nothing has come from democracy, either, a frustrated Sattar said — at least not as it is practiced by the barely functioning federal government in Islamabad, an hour’s drive down the mountains.

The economy is bad enough to make Sattar and others nostalgic for military rule, when the generals at least kept the nation’s lights on.

“The military is better,” said Amir Iqbal, who co-owns Mr. Food, a small eatery which had just two lunchtime customers. At 44, he recalls fondly the relative prosperity and higher economic growth rates that marked the nine-year regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. And, although he was young at the time, he speaks positively of the era of an earlier strongman, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul Haq.

“When the army is in government they keep inflation low,” Iqbal said. “They are good at governance and better organized.”

Such yearnings for order are certainly not new in Pakistan’s 64-year history: The army, generally with popular support, has stepped in three times to topple weak governments and impose martial law.

Judicial obeisance to the generals used to be the norm. But, styling itself as a corruption-battling people’s advocate, the current Supreme Court has inverted the narrative. It has spearheaded investigations into misdeeds of the executive branch and the military.

Some experts call Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry the country's most powerful man. Critics accuse him of mounting a “judicial coup” in the name of the rule of law.

His court picked off long-serving Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani last month for refusing to follow its orders and is poised to oust his successor for the same thing. A power struggle among the judiciary, the executive branch and, to a lesser extent, the army, threatens to destabilize the nuclear-armed nation at a time when its counterterrorism partnership with the United States has essentially fallen apart.

A slow stumble

Whatever its shortcomings, Pakistan’s coalition government has prevailed for 41 / 2 years without a coup, assassination or execution of a top leader and is on track to become the longest-serving civilian government in the country’s history.

But nobody knows how long the country can continue its slow stumble toward actual democracy: Pakistan, battling an Islamic insurgency, now faces a constitutional crisis during an economic meltdown coupled with devolving public order, as power-outage protests turn into deadly riots.

“Democracy has brought darkness to the country, that’s it,” said political analyst and columnist Farrukh Saleem. He noted that since the end of Musharraf’s rule, the price of milk has tripled and electricity has risen 500 percent.

“Democracy has brought bad governance and encouraged corruption,” Saleem said. “More poverty, more unemployment, no gas, price hikes.”

In Murree, for example, businessmen complain not only about the 15- to 18-hour-a-day blackouts, but also the exorbitant fees they must now pay to private water haulers to stay open.

The 25-room Al-Maaz Hotel spends $170 for a tankful of water that will last maybe six hours, according to the dapper front desk manager, Abdul Latif. The usual cost of water is about $70 per month, he said.

But the hotel can’t raise its prices because its clientele could then not afford rooms.

Latif, who speaks well of Musharraf, said he would support a “good ruler” from the army, but added that a “good civilian ruler” would be equally acceptable.

Only 15 percent of Pakistanis hold a positive view of their president, Asif Ali Zardari, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, while 39 percent of those surveyed still view Musharraf favorably.

Musharraf, who is subject to arrest if he returns to Pakistan, tends to earn praise in Murree as a visionary because he launched a huge water-supply project in 2006 that residents say would have alleviated the current shortage — but the project was torpedoed by political party maneuvering after the general was forced from office two years later.

A good influence

Pakistanis continue to express overwhelming support for the military as an institution, with 77 percent calling it a good influence, the poll found. And the powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is viewed favorably by slightly more than half of those surveyed by Pew in March and April.

But several analysts said they see little likelihood of a coup d’etat. The government may have inoculated itself against one thanks to its own incompetence: The economic situation is so dire that the military lacks the economic resources to fix the country’s intractable problems and would rather avoid taking the rap for failure.

“The army doesn’t want to be held responsible for this,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “And in some ways there is no reason for them to move in: They’ve got control over the things that they want to control. They still have a veto over any domestic policy that affects them in any substantial way.”

As for the troubled Pakistan-U.S. relationship, the army has ceded some authority to the inexperienced civilians — most importantly the decision Tuesday to reopen NATO supply routes through Pakistan into Afghanistan, closed for more than seven months. Kayani, who is said to have no appetite for running the government, has publicly voiced support for democracy.

For years the State Department has championed a reform agenda in Pakistan, spending tens of millions on programs to fight corruption, improve parliamentary operations, promote citizen advocacy and push for women’s rights. But reform advocates say it may take decades for Pakistan’s fragile constitutional government to mature enough to provide competent, clean leadership.

“The democratic system has never been able to sustain more than three or four years, and that has destroyed democratic institutions,” said Adil Gilani, head of the Pakistan branch of the anti-corruption group Transparency International. “Our point of view is that democracy at any level is better than dictatorship, because in democracy at least there is accountability.”

It is not known how many Pakistanis would swap democracy for dictatorship — perhaps half, say some observers, given how deeply the public anger runs after years of economic decline under fumbling civilian leaders.

“We want anyone who can solve our problems,” said Abdul Sattar, who visited Murree for relief from the heat with his wispy-bearded nephew, Zia ur-Rehman, 19, who nodded in agreement.

The young man said he came of age under democracy. “I’m not sure whether he is lucky or not,” his uncle said.

Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

 
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