There are times when a military coup is welcome

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The Independent Online

MILITARY COUPS should, in the proper order of things, be bloody and violent affairs: demonstrating civilians should flood out on to the streets to stand in front of the tanks, while brave democrats continue broadcasting from besieged television stations, and opposition leaders rally around the elected government to stand shoulder to shoulder against the men in khaki.

MILITARY COUPS should, in the proper order of things, be bloody and violent affairs: demonstrating civilians should flood out on to the streets to stand in front of the tanks, while brave democrats continue broadcasting from besieged television stations, and opposition leaders rally around the elected government to stand shoulder to shoulder against the men in khaki.

All of which stands in striking contrast to the scene in Pakistan yesterday. There, in defiance of all known precedents, the crowds in the streets cheered "Long Live the Army" as the tanks rolled towards the airports, while the democratic opposition congratulated the army on their coup. "Everyone has welcomed the army," the former cricketer Imran Khan told reporters yesterday. "Nawaz Sharif ran a fascist government and wanted to gain control over every institution in the country in order to become a Middle Eastern monarch. Only the army stood in the way of his attempt to become a complete dictator."

There are, it is true, not many parts of the world where anyone could possibly look on a military coup as preferable to democracy, but the democratic politics of Pakistan have now become so violent, and so corrupt, that military rule is now widely regarded as the least awful option now facing the country. For if Pakistan has spent 25 of its 52 years under military rule, the responsibility lies at least as much with the abysmal performance of its politicians as with any power-lust among its generals.

Three years ago, Transparency International, a Berlin-based corruption monitoring organisation, named Pakistan as the most corrupt country in Asia and the second most corrupt country in the world, pipped to the post only by Nigeria.At the same time, Amnesty International accused the then government of Benazir Bhutto of massive human rights abuse in one of its reports. It would be difficult to imagine Benazir's successor, Nawaz Sharif, making a bigger hash of things than Benazir had done, but he quickly succeeded in doing so.

Despite winning power with a record margin and a considerable fund of goodwill, Sharif quickly began behaving in an astonishingly inept and dictatorial fashion, violently harassing his political opponents, dismissing judges, and arresting journalists who dared to speak out against him. Behind this succession of crises, lay the bigger problem of a fundamentally flawed political system. Land ownership - the feudal system - is still the only social base from which Pakistani politicians can emerge. Benazir is a big landowner from Sindh; and most of what she does not own in that province is controlled by the inconceivably wealthy Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, one of her main rivals. The huge and highly educated middle class - the same class which seized control in India in 1947 and castrated the might of the landed maharajahs almost immediately - is, in Pakistan, still largely excluded from the political process. As a result, in many of the more backward parts of Pakistan the local feudal zamindar can automatically expect his people to vote either for himself, if he is standing, or else for the candidate he appoints; as one commentator recently put it: "In some constituencies, if the feudals put up their dog as a candidate, that dog would get elected with 99 per cent of the vote." Such loyalty can be enforced. Many of the biggest zamindars are said to have private prisons and most have private armies .

All this means that the democratic politics of Pakistan tend to bear very little resemblance to democracy as we know it in the West. It also means that politicians tend to come to power as much through deals done within the ranks of Pakistan's very small feudal élite as through the will of the people. In contrast, the army remains one of Pakistan's last genuinely uncorrupt and meritocratic institutions which has managed to retain its respect and popularity despite (and indeed possibly because of) its frequent intervention in the country's politics.

Military coups can, of course, provide no long-term solution to Pakistan's problems: only democracy can do that. The tragedy for Pakistan, however, is that its political class is so completely venal, so clueless and so unscrupulous that democracy is now largely discredited in the country at large. Under democratic rule, corruption and lawlessness reached such endemic proportions that most in Pakistan now believe that only a complete clean out of the entire political system can solve the problem. And, as far as they are concerned, if that involves a military coup, so be it.

 

William Dalrymple's 'The Age of Kali: Indian Travels & Encounters' is published by Flamingo

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