Understanding Reconciliation

Farahnaz Ispahani


While Pakistan awaits the official announcement of the presidential “election” of Oct. 6, the nation’s attention has been focused exclusively on the imminent return from exile of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, chairperson of the Pakistan People’s. Given the PPP’s significance as the political party that reshaped Pakistani politics from its elite origins to its current populist foundations, Ms Bhutto’s future role is central to current political discourse.

Much of the debate relates to the National Reconciliation Ordinance, (NRO) which is now under review of the Supreme Court. Opinions on the NRO are sharply divided. Although it could pave the way for political inclusions not just of Ms Bhutto but also of politicians from various parties, it is the prospect of Ms Bhutto’s unhindered return that is arousing the greatest passions. Over the years, just as millions of Pakistanis have loved the Bhutto family for bringing politics out of elite drawing rooms into city streets and village squares, there are many who froth at the mouth at the mention of the Bhutto name.

After Ms Bhutto’s removal from the office of prime minister by then-president Farooq Leghari in 1996, conventional wisdom among Bhutto haters was that Benazir Bhutto would never be able to return to power. The Ehtesab Cell created by Mr Leghari propagated several charges against Ms Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, which were developed further under the Ehtesab Bureau headed by the notorious Mr Saifur Rehman during the second stint in power of Mian Nawaz Sharif. After the coup of 1999, the corruption charges pieced together by the Ehtesab Cell and Bureau were transferred to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

It was supposed by the architects of the Ehtesab/Accountability processes that loud proclamations about Ms Bhutto’s alleged corruption will end her political career. But politics is more about mobilising popular support than it is about charges and allegations, especially if these do not result in convictions by a court of law. In Ms Bhutto’s case, the charges against her and her husband failed to erode her support base. Her opponents considered her discredited, but then they were her opponents to begin with. Had any of the several legal proceedings initiated against Ms Bhutto resulted in some conclusion, these opponents might have had cause for celebration. That did not happen, and in legal terms the allegations stand where they did eleven years ago.

If the persistent charges of corruption had convinced the masses to stop supporting Ms Bhutto, that too would have been another story. As things turned out, the PPP led by Ms Bhutto remains Pakistan’s largest political party. Now that General Musharraf’s military regime (and, for that matter, the country) is much weaker than when the effort to disqualify Ms Bhutto from politics started, it has become necessary to recognise that a popular politician cannot be wished away from the political scene.

The NRO reflects the Musharraf regime’s recognition of its failure in conclusively proving their charges against Ms Bhutto and other politicians. The idea is to bury the past and look to the future. But that is not easy for those who had been dreaming of a future for Pakistani politics crafted in a manner that shuts out Ms Bhutto and the PPP. Now there is much sound and fury over “letting off the corrupt” for political expediency. The flip side of the argument is that Ms Bhutto has “accepted a deal” to save herself and in return helped save General Musharraf. The fact being ignored in this debate relates to how the investigation, prosecution and judicature system in Pakistan has consistently been a political exercise, susceptible to the influence of the state instead of being an independent process.

The criminal justice system has been successively used and abused to influence, punish, demoralise or isolate political opponents of any regime in power. It is for this reason that the people ignore charges of corruption against political leaders they support. Almost every government has charged its opponents with real or imaginary wrongdoing, from serious allegations of stealing from the exchequer to false accusations of murder. Many people recall the widely reported telephone conversations of the-then Lahore High Court Justice Abdul Qayyum with the law minister and Ehtesab Bureau chief Saifur Rehman about cases against Ms Bhutto. This blatant attempt to fix the outcome of a case involving the-then prime minister’s principal opponent took place while Mr Nawaz Sharif ruled the country with his “heavy mandate.”

Given the history of criminal proceedings being used against political opponents it is difficult to understand the pretentious outrage currently being expressed by some about termination of cases under a political arrangement. After the end of virtually every regime in Pakistan, politically motivated judicial proceedings have been terminated as a result of a political arrangement.

Some people now want Pakistan’s largest political party and its leadership to remain hostage to court proceedings even after eleven years of non-stop vendetta. None of them protested when Asif Zardari was kept in prison for eight-and-a-half years, without bail and without conviction in a single case. But they express outrage over a settlement that makes it possible for the country to move forward the process of democracy and to end the politics of vengeance and vendetta.

The NRO, in its essence, has been designed to end the persecution of the political class and pave the way for politics without demonisation and criminalisation. Most of the ordinance’s clauses provide relief across the board. It is true that the PPP negotiated the terms of the NRO, but then the PPP is the party that has faced relentless persecution and is most aware of the need to lay the foundation of a political order based on due process.

Instead of persisting with a past characterised by polarisation and political vendettas, it is time we build a future based on unfettered democracy. The way forward for our nation is to allow fair and free elections to proceed and then to allow the party that wins to take power. The NRO paves the way for exactly that course.

The writer has worked with ABC, CNN, NBC and the VOA. Email: farahispahani@alum.wellesley.edu

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