By Michael Krepon – The longer most leaders stay in power, the more their record is likely to become tarnished. But it is extremely hard to walk away from power when it is possible to stay longer, especially for generals who become president. George Washington joined the pantheon of historic leaders not just for his performance on the battlefield and his sound judgment in office, but because he chose not to become president for life. By stepping down voluntarily, Washington laid the basis for a political system of checks and balances that has proven to be an essential safeguard against the abuse of power in the United States.
Great leaders have amazing willpower, but willpower can not substitute for honest self-appraisal and humility, which help leaders recognize what course of action is truly in the best interest of their country. General Pervez Musharraf has been in charge of Pakistan for eight years–a longer period than any other leader except for Zia ul-Haq and Ayub Khan. He has accomplished much during this time. Indeed, he may well turn out to be a pivotal leader in the history of Pakistan. But this depends heavily on what course of action Musharraf chooses in the future. His choices are to maintain power by whatever means necessary, to share power, or to relinquish power.
Pervez Musharraf is a man of supreme confidence who has accomplished much. He has articulated a vision for Pakistan as a tolerant, moderate, progressive state–the same vision as Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammed Ali Jinnah. If he can achieve progress toward this vision, he will receive the grateful thanks of his nation. He has done more than any other leader in Pakistan’s history to normalize relations with India–a precondition for a normal, economically vibrant Pakistan. He has reversed disastrous national policies toward Kashmir, and in doing so, has improved prospects for domestic tranquility, economic growth, increased trade and foreign direct investment. Musharraf can be justifiably proud of his stewardship of Pakistan’s economy.
Musharraf has also shifted Pakistan’s policies toward Afghanistan and the Taliban, but this shift is still very much a work in progress. If the border with Afghanistan can be secured and if Pakistan can improve bilateral ties–two big “ifs” that could take many years or decades to achieve–then Pakistan’s national security will be greatly enhanced, and trading routes to Central Asia will help Pakistan achieve domestic tranquility and economic growth.
Yes, General Musharraf has made mistakes along the way. Which national leader hasn’t? But he has also demonstrated an ability to learn from his mistakes, to adapt, and to grow.
Domestic problems tend to accumulate for leaders who linger. Pakistan now faces much domestic unrest. This unrest is not due to poor economic policies or unhappiness with President Musharraf’s shift toward Kashmir and India. Instead, much of the unrest relates to the circumstances of the President’s extended rule, and the expectation that another irregular extension of his rule is in the offing. Most Pakistanis and historians are unlikely to judge Musharraf kindly if he resorts to the usual methods by which Pakistan’s military leaders extend their stay in power.
The essence of representative government and checks against abuse of power are an independent judiciary, an independent media, and political parties that chose their own leaders and that are held accountable by the electorate for their shortcomings. Pakistan cannot become the moderate, progressive, enlightened state that Musharraf and the Qaid-i-Azam have envisioned unless these conditions are met.
Pakistani politics have been much maligned, but it is worth noting that the two major political parties in the country do not define themselves primarily in religious terms. The leaders of these parties have been kept in exile. Barristers and judges are struggling to stop and reverse the slide away from judicial independence. Despite pressures applied against them, media outlets are faithfully reporting the news, and political parties are calling for the free and fair elections that have been repeatedly promised. It is becoming increasingly apparent that many people and key institutions in Pakistan share President Musharraf’s vision of a moderate, enlightened, progressive state.
President Musharraf now faces an important choice. If he believes that he is indispensable, then a familiar script will continue to play out against the judiciary, the media, and the two main political parties. If he follows this well-worn path, he will be remembered mostly for these actions, and not for his earlier, historic accomplishments. Much harm will be done to the vision of Pakistan that he has championed. And the longer Pakistan’s military runs the country, the more it alienates itself from the people it has sworn to protect.
Alternatively, President Musharraf can do what no prior military leader of Pakistan has done: He can help the basic institutions of a representative government to flourish. In doing so, he can advance the vision of a moderate, enlightened, progressive state that can be his most important legacy. The Qaid-i-Azam did not have enough time to lay these foundations. Musharraf can weaken these foundations by staying too long. Jinnah was indispensable; no other Pakistani leader has been, or is likely to be.
President Musharraf faces an immensely important choice. His legacy can be great, or it can be badly tarnished. Which legacy does he want?