The elections must go ahead
Hassan Abbas, Guardian's Comment is free.., December 31, 2007
Click here to see a shorter version in today's Guardian
Pakistan is reeling in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto's murder, as anger and overwhelming sadness drive its people towards hopelessness and violence. In the midst of all this, the government is foolishly trying to distort the facts surrounding Bhutto's killing by trying to shift the blame from its own incompetence and possible involvement. Without credible elections, restoration of the independent judiciary and effective curbs on the activities of the country's intelligence agencies in internal affairs, Pakistan cannot be rescued from a certain slide into more chaos.
Pakistan's history is full of cover-ups and Bhutto's murder is proving to be no different. Innumerable acts of violence creating choreographed instability in the country, abrupt dismissals of various governments and assassinations of many political and military leaders remain uninvestigated, or unresolved and shrouded in mystery.
Repeated martial laws and military interference in politics is the leading cause behind Pakistan's failure to develop democratic institutions and a culture of accountability. An "insecurity" complex inspired the country's military to meddle in regional conflicts and pursue a secretive "foreign policy", for which the country is paying through its nose today. Shortsighted and uninformed policy decisions of the United States and the west, pertaining to Pakistan in particular and south-west Asia in general, further added to the problems in the region. For instance, the aftermath of the western-sponsored and supported "jihad" in Afghanistan in the 1980s is still haunting the region, as well as the rest of the world.
Coming to the present scenario, prospects of democracy started to rise when Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif returned to the country and decided to contest elections. Movement for the rule of law spearheaded by lawyers and civil society actors in response to the unlawful deposition of the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, since March 2007 was also a healthy development for the country. However, Musharraf started backtracking on the understanding he had developed with Bhutto, as his political allies began to feel uncomfortable with the reception she was getting all across the country.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that, since mid-November, some hardliner and extremist elements within the Musharraf camp have been saying Bhutto was pursuing an "American agenda" to "topple Pakistan's army" and get rid of the nukes - a conspiracy theory. Some Pakistani journalists and analysts closely aligned with Musharraf started producing "news analysis" to this effect soon afterwards (for a glimpse, click here). Intriguingly, a video clip was also telecasted from some media outlets (eg ARY TV and PTV) on November 29 showing that Islamabad police had confiscated a vehicle in the capital city with around two-dozen American M16 and Israeli Uzi guns. Clearly, this was an attempt to suggest that the US and Israel were planning to create violence in the country. The clip zoomed in on markings on the US weapons which read: "Property of the US government". Many media channels that deciphered the deceptive motive of the "news item" refused to run it.
Statements made by Bhutto which were critical of the role played by Dr AQ Khan in nuclear proliferation were also hyped by government media managers. Despite all these manipulations and disinformation, her political campaign continued to gain momentum. At this point (around mid-December), Musharraf started to make statements challenging Benazir's support base and refused to accept her demands regarding election matters and provision of adequate security for her. And then came the assassin's bullet - in a professionally executed targeted killing - raising important questions about the identity of the killers and the role of elements from within the establishment. In an email on October 24, Benazir, while analysing threats to her life, maintained that the real "threat [is] not from the US perceived angle but estab[lishment] elements".
The resultant chaos has shaken the state's foundations and federation. PPP has a huge task ahead under the new leadership of Benazir's 19-year-old son Bilawal and his father Asif Zardari - a combination of youth and experience guided by the Bhutto legacy. This is in line with south Asia's democratic traditions - where individuals and their backgrounds are often deemed more important than institutions because of the public's emotional ties to charismatic leaders. It is quite likely that PPP will sweep the coming elections, whether held on January 8 or a bit later, benefiting from an additional sympathy vote all across the country.
Such an eventuality, if uninterrupted by the military establishment, will give Pakistan another chance to be rescued. Musharraf on the other hand is becoming increasingly irrelevant and there is a growing possibility that military leadership will distance itself from him and return to its professional job and regain people's confidence. Such a scenario requires acumen and sagacity on the part of political and military leadership. The past provides little comfort in this regard, but one hopes that Benazir's sacrifice will pay off, ushering Pakistan towards a progressive democratic order.