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Stabroek News

Pakistan changes its gov't
published: Thursday | August 21, 2008

"The less we see of the government, the better," said my correspondent, on the phone from Karachi. "The mood is optimistic."

In the West, the fall of Pervez Musharraf is being seen very much through the lenses of the United States war on terror, in which the former president was seen as a key American ally. Although, in recent weeks, Washington had resigned itself to the departure of Musharraf, there is nonetheless a palpable anxiety as to what will follow.

Little of that anxiety appears to be present in Pakistan itself. As an increasingly unpopular president who had taken to using unconstitutional means to prop up his faltering rule, Musharraf was seen as an enemy of democracy.

His departure is thus seen as a triumph by those in Pakistan who would like the regime to be more responsive to its citizens' needs.

The poor

And, friend to the Americans or not, that is one thing at which Musharraf did not excel. It is not that he did not do good things. Even his foes grant that under his watch, robust economic growth returned to the country. But that growth did not necessarily translate into gains for ordinary Pakistanis, who labour under the weight of powerful elites resistant to change.

One of the things that has been overlooked by much of the outside world, though, is just how vibrant Pakistan's civil society has become. We hear a great deal about the rise of the Islamists in Pakistan, and about the threat they pose to the regime. Indeed, this is a real phenomenon. But it is hardly the only one to characterise Pakistan in recent years.

Direct attack

After all, it is not Islamists so much as lawyers who made Musharraf's last months in office so difficult. His attempt to subvert the judiciary in order to place loyalists to himself in the courts was seen as a direct attack on the country's institutions. The protest campaign organised by the country's jurists served as a rallying-point for opposition to the president's rule.

It is not yet clear who will become the next president. The jockeying among the country's main political factions has begun. Quite likely, the mood in the country will darken quickly, as Pakistan's political elites revert to their usual squabbling. After all, the only thing which united an otherwise fractious opposition was its shared determination to see the back of Musharraf. By building a case for his impeachment, they succeeded in forcing the president to step down.

Business as usual

With him now gone, no obvious successor emerges. The Americans may fret about the 'Talibanisation' of Pakistan's politics. They may worry about the tail wagging the dog, as the country's intelligence services - with its ties to Afghanistan's Taliban and Pakistan's Islamist opposition - is increasingly penetrated by its clients. But for most Pakistanis, the bigger threat is merely that the country's politics returns to business as usual: inept, corrupt, fractious and unstable.

This is why there was probably an ominous hint in my colleague's comment. If the mood is high in Pakistan, the hopes that a new government will deliver major change are perhaps not great. Saddled as they are with poor governance, Pakistanis have grown accustomed to running their own lives and managing their own affairs. The less they see of their government, the better.

That may not augur well for Pakistan's future, in that civil-society groups can substitute for only so many of the functions the government would normally provide. Nonetheless, if an oppressive and corrupt government has just been curtailed somewhat, for ordinary citizens, that may well be a good thing.

John Rapley is president of Caribbean Research Institute, an independent think-tank affiliated to the University of the West Indies, Mona. Send feedback to:

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