Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto commanded a clear majority in Pakistan's Parliament. Last fall, she handily defeated a no-confidence motion by her opposition. To dismiss her and dissolve Parliament, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan has used the extraordinary powers that his military predecessor had invested in the presidency.
While Pakistan's judiciary alone can rule on the constitutionality of his decision, it undoubtedly violates the spirit and norms of parliamentary democracy. It also fits a historic pattern of authoritarian interventions against representative government in Pakistan, and arouses anxiety among those who wish Pakistan a democratic future. Under colonial rule, two opposing traditions of government prevailed--the viceregal and the democratic. The mainstay of the Raj was the viceroy, representative of the British Crown, who presided over the military and the bureaucracy. But the promise of colonialism was self-government.
At independence in 1947, both Pakistan and India sought to reconcile, in British style, the contrasting traditions of government. The symbols of authority, formerly the viceroy's, invested in the president as head of the state. The government was the prerogative of the prime minister and the cabinet, as long as they commanded the parliamentary majority.
In India, the founding fathers lived long enough to consolidate the system and make it work. But in Pakistan, such consolidation was undermined by the early deaths of the founders and by squabbling among politicians and top military officers allied with the United States.
The first real blow to the democratic order was dealt in 1953. President Ghulam Mohammed, a former colonial bureaucrat, dissolved the government in a "constitutional coup d'etat" that paved the way for the military coups that followed.
In arbitrarily dissolving Bhutto's government, Ishaq Khan has followed the example of a detested predecessor. The best one can hope is that he and the military leaders behind him will keep their promise of holding fair elections within the constitutional time frame. But one is not reassured that Ishaq Khan will keep his promise. He has justified Bhutto's dismissal on grounds of incompetence and corruption. As an administrator, he must know that these charges are neither relevant nor unique. They should cause not the dissolution of Parliament, but the investigation, adjudication and public criticism that Bhutto's government was already facing at an increasing tempo. Executive intervention has ended a vigorous democratic process. All governments in Pakistan have engaged in corruption. Gen. Zia ul-Haq's dictatorship, which Ishaq Khan served most diligently, was excessively venal and vile. The civil war in Sind, Pakistan's second-largest province, is a legacy of Zia's rule, not Bhutto's. Unlike her predecessor, Bhutto was scheduled to face the verdict of the electorate. By playing God, the oligarchs have again deprived the people of the rights to hold their government accountable.
Benazir Bhutto's accession to power 20 months ago had inspired enthusiasm and hope. In opposition, she had shown grit and persistence. Her youth and elite education had aroused expectations of political intelligence and social vision. But Bhutto is not a modern politician. Harvard and Oxford did not liberate her from the culture of feudalism. In office, she was a disappointment. She replaced a dictatorship of tyrants with a democracy of toadies, confused good government with big government, reserved her political favors and alliances for affluent feudal families and reduced politics to mere patronage. Above all, she had no legislative program and few administrative capabilities.
But corruption and incompetence were not the real reasons for the dissolution of Bhutto's government. The army was frustrated by her failure to restore order in Sind and for her tendency to alienate opponents and exacerbate conflicts. The generals wanted emergency power to apprehend and punish criminals without reference to the judiciary. Bhutto refused.
Ishaq Khan has a certain fondness for a fundamentalist transfusion of religion into politics. The Senate, of which he was chairman before Zia's death in an air crash, has completed a bill that envisages enforcement of religious laws and renders the elected legislature subservient to religious courts. Bhutto had been reluctant to support the bill unless it was drastically amended to restore Parliament's legislative autonomy. On this crucial issue, democratic opinion in Pakistan was with Bhutto and against those who are dragging religion into politics to the detriment of Islam and Muslim society.
For now, the army's leadership appears committed to staying out of power. The elections may be held, as scheduled, on Oct. 24. However, the oligarchs want Bhutto disqualified and her party weakened. Opportunists, who abound in her party leadership, are being urged to defect. There are also indications that Bhutto and her close associates might be prosecuted for treason and corruption. But victimization can only revive Bhutto's popularity, distort the democratic process and further divide a fractious and turbulent country.