No Backdoor To Democracy

Mariana Babar


For some months now, former prime minister and Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto has been justifying her deal with President Pervez Musharraf, saying a political duet between them was imperative to challenge the monster of terrorism. But they scoffed at her. They said terrorism was just a pretext for Benazir to get the corruption charges against her quashed and access the millions stashed in foreign banks. Others accused her of playing the amoral American game, of dining with the devil.

Nearly 10 hours after her touchdown at Karachi airport, amidst uproarious celebrations on the streets of the city, Benazir Bhutto stood emphatically, almost diabolically, vindicated—the suicide attack on her cavalcade demonstrating to the cynical Pakistani the awesome firepower and zeal of the militant. He can reach anyone, anywhere; kill and maim the innocent in his quest to grab power and redefine the soul of Pakistan. Ironic as it may seem, the death of 143 people in the attack on Benazir may not have been in vain. The world has long seen Islamic extremism as Pakistan’s number one problem; now Pakistan sees it too.

Benazir was vindicated in many other ways as well. She has demonstrated—beyond all refutation—the hypnotic lure of the Bhutto name, drawing an estimated two million people out to the streets of Karachi. All other political rallies of the past five years pale into insignificance in comparison. Nor has the exile blunted her political touch. Hours after surviving the carnage, she was in hospital to meet those injured. She was also remarkably pugnacious, refusing to cower in the overpowering ambience of fear. “These assailants want to derail the democratic process in the country because it suits their designs…aimed at promoting their so-called jehadi agenda,” she said. “No one can prevent me from restoring full democracy in the country and I won’t allow such forces to play with the future of the youth to fulfil their vested interests.” The injured, still moaning in pain, shouted, “Jiye, jiye Bhutto”, “Wazir-e-Azam Benazir“. And mothers who had lost their sons in the attack vowed to send their surviving children to protect Benazir.

The Bhutto legacy survives. Nay, it thrives. At least in Sindh.

Is the response to Benazir a first flush of enthusiasm that could well ebb? Some say a waning of the tide is inevitable because the ‘false messiah’ has betrayed people twice as prime minister. For the moment, though, the critics reserve their cynicism for the fawning masses. Academic Dr Aneela Zeb was scathing in her remarks as she watched the ‘Benazir live show’ being played out on television on October 18. “Hopeless romantics,” she said. “They queue up for a glimpse of her face. What kind of self-destructive love is this that draws them still? She has betrayed their love before. But they still hope as the camera moves slowly on the mangled wreck.”

Dr Aneela is among those who say the true magnitude of Benazir’s following will be known only when the election campaign enters full swing. These critics say Benazir has returned for all the wrong reasons, that the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) granting her and husband Asif Zardari amnesty in corruption cases will still come to haunt her. Comparisons will also be made between her and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s fate. One was allowed in, the other was not. And all this at the behest of the United States, not exactly everyone’s favourite country here.

Perhaps rampaging terrorism provides a mitigating circumstance within which to judge Benazir’s ‘sin’ of aligning with Musharraf and, therefore by implication, of implementing the American agenda.Former foreign secretary Tanvir Ahmed Khan says, “America’s war on terror has injected a new element of brutality in political contests. The militants accepted the challenge. In three months, they have demonstrated the state cannot stop them from hitting targets far beyond the northwestern tribal belt.” Despite the looming threat, says Khan, there’s still no hope of the state and political parties uniting to pick up the gauntlet thrown by the terrorist. The Dawn, too, said political parties must erect a united front to crush the monster of terrorism. “If this means getting the Sharifs on board, then let it be so,” it said. Pervez Hoodbhoy of the Qaid-e-Azam University says terrorism is every Pakistani’s war and not just the enemy’s. “It will have to be fought even if America packs up and goes away,” he stresses.

But who’s to lead this fight? Right now there’s nothing to suggest that the military will return to the barracks and democracy will be allowed a full play, which is popularly considered the most effective antidote to terrorism, as the Outlook-Gallup opinion poll shows. Musharraf has been emphasising on the need to have a troika of a president (himself), a prime minister and an army chief to wage Pakistan’s battle. By nominating a loyalist to succeed him as army chief once he doffs his uniform, Musharraf has ensured that his influence over general headquarters will not dim. Will political parties join him in the war against terror? Unlikely.

Feb ’99 When he was just Gen Musharraf and Sharif was PM

True, an unexpected storm could still roil the already turbulent waters of Pakistani politics. The Supreme Court, for instance, could disqualify Musharraf as president on the grounds that he contested the election without relinquishing the post of army chief. What happens then? Martial law? This remains a distinct possibility. No less than Justice Khalilur Rehman Ramday, while hearing the petition against Musharraf, remarked that it would be incorrect to say that the spectre of martial law has been “buried” as it still haunts everyone.

Benazir’s concerns about terrorism are genuine. But her problem is that she is seen as the “civilian face of the American agenda”. This perception has only been bolstered by her recent pronouncements that she would allow the IAEA to question the fallen nuclear patriarch, Dr A.Q. Khan, encourage NATO to stay in Afghanistan longer, and allow the US troops to assist the Pakistan army in taking the terrorists out in the tribal belts. Warns Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the Jamiat Ulema Islam (F), “Benazir is a part of the Bush team spearheading the agenda of the anti-Islam forces to suppress Muslims in the name of the so-called war on terror. She will have to accept new realities and our position in Pakistan.” The maulana’s outfit is a constituent of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an umbrella group of religious parties and a rising force here.

But then, Benazir doesn’t necessarily have to adhere to the understanding she has reached with Musharraf. Swelling crowds could prompt her to script her act independent of him. Analysts already point to a telling indicator—she accused three officials close to Musharraf of conspiring to murder her. The Musharraf-Benazir relationship could also sour owing to plain, petty politics—the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Q), the King’s Party, will be eager to thwart a Musharraf-Benazir alliance. The PML-Q’s very political future hinges on this—their strident criticism of Benazir is only eloquent proof of it. “After looting the country in the past together with Asif Zardari, Benazir now has her eyes on the fattened national exchequer,” says PML-Q boss Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain.The open war of words prompted Musharraf to send his trusted lieutenant, Tariq Aziz, to meet and pacify the Chaudhry.

Worse for Benazir, her charismatic ability to draw crowds has been tested only in Karachi. Firstly, it’s a moot point whether this can translate into votes, even in Sindh. And then, there’s Punjab, Sharif’s home base and Pakistan’s biggest province, where she has yet to prove herself. Since it accounts for 148 seats in the 342-member National Assembly against Sindh’s 61, a good performance in Punjab is essential for her to secure an overall majority.

With attempts afoot to have Sharif return to Pakistan before the election, Benazir may have her work cut out. Not only is Sharif’s arrival likely to split the PML-Q, he is also expected to cobble an alliance with the MMA. These possibilities could arrest the PPP’s growth, particularly as Sharif has enhanced his popularity through his steadfast opposition to Musharraf. Analysts feel Musharraf will find it hard to row the two boats of the PPP and PML-Q simultaneously, that the PPP is bound to drift further away from the establishment. For, only that will enable Benazir to notch an electoral performance proportionate to the crowds she drew on October 18.

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