- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2000

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan Dozens of social activists have joined forces with the new military government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, arguing contrary to Western perceptions that it is more committed than its elected predecessors to genuine reform.

"It sounds crazy. But this is the most liberal time ever in Pakistan," Mehnaz Akbar, a senior fellow at the private Asia Foundation, said of the six months since Gen. Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup.

Key to Gen. Musharraf's program is a soon-to-be implemented system of local government. It is part of his pledge to free Pakistan's 140 million people from their centuries-old reliance on an autocratic, ruling elite.

Just exactly how the system will work is being discussed in public meetings at 50 locations across the country. Participants at one meeting in the mountain town of Abbottabad were treated to a skit in which a female candidate for office decided to drop out of the race after male rivals threatened her with violence.

As the all too true to life performance went on, the audience of nearly 1,000 villagers was invited to step in and alter the plot line.

"Oh no, you must run! We will stand behind you," a bearded farmer with a turban insisted, leaping out of his seat to climb on stage.

The reaction, unexpected in the heart of Pakistan's deeply conservative North West Frontier Province, revealed a desire for change in a country where literacy is a mere 30 percent, violence against women is commonplace and politicians are widely despised.

Gen. Musharraf who insists he took power only to save Pakistan from collapse has resisted pressure from the United States and other nations for an immediate return to democracy, saying he needs time to root out rampant corruption and pave the way for a better system of government.

On March 23, just two days before President Clinton visited Pakistan, the general announced elections for local councils would be held starting in February. He said provincial and national polls would soon follow.

Skeptics dismissed the move as a stalling tactic designed to keep the army in power indefinitely. "I don't see any forward motion. I see only backward motion," said a U.S. Embassy official, who asked to remain anonymous.

Other critics say the idea of a military government attempting to sow the seeds of democracy is inherently flawed. "Building a republic is not the task of the armed forces," said Afrasyab Khattack, chairman of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission.

"We think that the comparison has to be made between bad democracy and no democracy," Mr. Khattack argued, "and we believe that bad democracy with all its flaws should be corrected and criticized within its framework and not thrown out."

But others, including the dozens of civil rights activists and technocrats who have joined the new government, argue otherwise.

"Those who criticize are totally out of touch with the reality on the ground in Pakistan," said Rashida Dohad, another analyst with the Asia Foundation who is advising the government on local government.

"What Pakistan had could not be called democracy," she said, arguing that Gen. Musharraf's decision to pack his government with civilian experts showed he was serious about carrying out necessary change.

The country's two previous prime ministers, the ousted and convicted Nawaz Sharif and his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto, are accused of acquiring nearly $2 billion dollars in illicit wealth part of some $30 billion the military government estimates was smuggled out of the country during their tenures.

Sharif also made himself unpopular by challenging everyone from the chief justice of the Supreme Court to rivals in his own party in a bid to consolidate power. It was his attempt to dismiss Gen. Musharraf that sparked his overthrow and conviction this month for hijacking and terrorism.

So far, Gen. Musharraf's government has faced little opposition. Even the media, which Western observers say is freer now than under Sharif, has been generous.

Its foes include the dozens of former politicians and industrialists under investigation for corruption and employees of loss-making state industries, which are being streamlined with the intention of being privatized.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will come from the Islamic fundamentalists. Gen. Musharraf is under intense pressure from the West to curb extremist groups that are waging a guerrilla war in India's Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir.

The conflict has left 50,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides of the border a legacy for which Pakistan's army is largely to blame.

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