As we know well in this country, elections are a time for reflection. They are a time to consider who we are as a nation and what we want to become. Sometimes it is appropriate to stop and think about how lucky we are to have the freedom to make these kinds of choices. We should also think about the fact that there is no guarantee these freedoms will remain forever.
Take Pakistan, for example. Having endured a U.S.-backed military coup, martial law, and the assassination of their most visible opposition leader, Pakistanis will head to the polls on Monday to select members of their National Assembly in elections already plagued by widespread allegations of illegitimacy. Observers across the political spectrum have noted persisting restrictions on the press, politicized election administration at both the local and federal level, and the conspicuous lack of an independent judiciary to resolve electoral disputes.
Sadly, the United States is doing very little to help the situation in Pakistan and may well be making it worse. The Bush administration has consistently pressed for these elections to proceed despite security concerns and various allegations of unfairness. Not surprisingly, from an administration installed by a controversial Supreme Court ruling, its view appears to be that elections confer legitimacy on whichever regime emerges victorious, regardless of complaints about how the votes were tallied.
Even worse, these electoral similarities are only the tip of an iceberg reflecting deep connections between the agenda of the Bush administration and the Musharraf regime. While criticism has abounded of Musharraf’s various abuses of the rule of law, observers have generally overlooked the means Musharraf has taken to squelch dissent of his administration, and how they resemble some of the tactics Americans have seen domestically. As one prominent anchor of a major Pakistani television news program suggested when discussing the threats to democracy in his country, “Musharraf’s playbook is the same as the Bush administration’s.”
This is especially disturbing to me, as I have written recently about how the Bush administration seems to be following the playbook of twentieth century leaders, such as Stalin and Mussolini, who shut down democracies in their own countries. It is painful to think that the Bush administration is filling a similar role, making the United States of America an example for would-be tyrants.
At a broad level, both Bush and Musharraf have consistently magnified real threats to security in their public communications in order to promote fear and intimidate political opponents. In America, fear of another catastrophic attack in the wake of 9/11 was used to justify the round-ups of material witnesses, domestic spying and the PATRIOT Act. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the threat of armed fundamentalists was cited as the reason to sack the Supreme Court and restrict the press.
In carrying out this governance by fear, both administrations have claimed that domestic checks on their agendas have given comfort to the enemy, effectively (if not literally) saying that “You’re either with us, or against us.” Nor have these accusations been confined to civil society.
Musharraf has framed Pakistan’s former Supreme Court — which he sacked with U.S. support in November for the second time last year — as having interfered in his counter-terrorism efforts. Similarly, in addition to accusing opponents of the War in Iraq of undermining “our troops,” officials in the Bush administration have derogated other branches of the federal government in order to aggrandize the executive branch.
The detainee cases are especially poignant. Both Musharraf and Bush have assaulted civil liberties, arguing against habeas corpus rights for detainees and resisting judicial efforts to ensure impartial trials. Student activists from Balochistan were imprisoned and even “disappeared” by Pakistani agents, while hundreds of detainees were imprisoned without trials for years at Guantanamo Bay.
While Musharraf’s attack on judicial independence took the form of sacking the Supreme Court, removing the majority of its justices and jailing several of them, Bush has also compromised judicial independence, though in a more subtle fashion. When vacancies emerged on the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush nominated a pair of Justices whose principal qualification was prior service in the Reagan-era Department of Justice, where they championed aggressive theories aggrandizing executive power.
Both Bush and Musharraf have largely ignored the real security threats they use to promote fear. Bush started a war in Afghanistan only to then grow distracted by an Iraq conflict whose only relation to terrorism was to encourage more of it. Musharraf has ignored his regime’s ongoing support for militants despite the threat they pose to his own government, instead spending U.S. money on high-tech force structure (such as F-16s) for a hypothetical war with India.
Shahid Buttar is a civil rights lawyer, hip-hop MC, grassroots community organizer, and independent journalist. His commentary has appeared in various print and broadcast outlets, including The Washington Post; The New York Times; Bloomberg; Hannity & Colmes on FOX News; The Laura Flanders Show on Air America; TomPaine.com; Alternet; Common Dreams; and Democracy Now! on NPR, which named one of his public addresses among “The Best of 2004.”