After Bhutto's Murder: A Way Forward for Pakistan - ICG Report
After Bhutto's Murder: A Way Forward for Pakistan
Asia Briefing N°74; International Crisis Group; 2 January 2008
Gravely damaged by eight years of military rule, Pakistan’s fragile political system received a major blow on 27 December 2007, when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Her murder, days before the parliamentary elections scheduled for 8 January 2008 and now postponed to 18 February, put an end to a U.S. effort to broker a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf which the centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader had already recognised was unrealistic. Her popularity and the belief Musharraf and his allies were responsible, directly or indirectly, have led to violent countrywide protests.
Stability in Pakistan and its contribution to wider anti-terror efforts now require rapid transition to legitimate civilian government. This must involve the departure of Musharraf, whose continued efforts to retain power at all costs are incompatible with national reconciliation; an interim consensus caretaker government and a neutral Election Commission; and brief postponement of the elections to allow conditions to be created – including the restoration of judicial independence – in which they can be conducted freely and fairly.
Bhutto’s death has drawn the battle lines even more clearly between Musharraf’s military-backed regime and Pakistan’s moderate majority, which is now unlikely to settle for anything less than genuine parliamentary democracy. Many in Pakistan fear that the federation’s very survival could depend on the outcome of this struggle.
Belying his reiterated slogan of “Pakistan first”, Musharraf is placing regime survival and his personal political fortune first, just as he did in November. That month he imposed martial law, suspended the constitution, imprisoned thousands of lawyers and politicians and sacked the judiciary with the sole objective of preventing the Supreme Court from challenging the legitimacy of his re-election as president by a lame-duck and stacked Electoral College.
Musharraf gave up his position of Army Chief on 28 November under U.S. pressure, but the legitimacy of his presidential election remains contested. He withdrew martial law formally on 15 December, ending the emergency and reviving the constitution. At the same time, however, he not only did not restore the dismissed judges or void the repressive decrees he had issued but also unilaterally and without any legal basis proclaimed amendments to the constitution purporting to deny the courts and the parliament their constitutional prerogatives to challenge his changes.
Bhutto’s PPP and the centre-right Muslim League (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had reluctantly agreed to participate in the 8 January elections, motivated primarily by the desire to expose Musharraf’s intention to rig the vote. Stacked courts, partial caretaker governments, a subservient Election Commission, the gagging of the media, curbs on political party mobilisation and association and the actions of the security agencies all undermined the essential conditions for free and fair elections.
The regime’s international backers, particularly the U.S., continue to give signs of wanting to retain Musharraf in the presidency in the belief that he and the military (his sole support base) are the only guarantors of stability in a crucial country. But after Bhutto’s murder, and with the extent of popular anger now evident, elections that are not seen as free and fair would have disastrous consequences. The person of Musharraf has become so unpopular that his continuation in a position of power guarantees increasing domestic turmoil. By continuing to back him, Western governments might not just lose the battle for Pakistani hearts and minds, but could also be faced with the nightmare prospect of a nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority country of 165 million descending into violent internal conflict from which only extremist forces would stand to gain.
Bhutto’s party will survive her demise, and will, should her successors act wisely, remain a force for moderation and stability in Pakistan. Sharif’s party has vowed to work with the PPP to restore democracy, peace and stability in the country. The U.S. and its Western allies must recognise that Musharraf is not only not indispensable, but he is now a serious liability. Instead of backing a deeply unpopular authoritarian ruler who is seen as complicit in the death of Pakistan’s most popular politician, they must instead support democratic institutions and the people of Pakistan. It is time that the West acknowledges that only a legitimate elected government, led by one of the moderate parties, would have the authority and the popular backing to return Pakistan to its moderate democratic moorings.
In summary, the policy outcomes that need to happen over the next two months, and which should be strongly and consistently supported by the international community, and particularly those like the U.S. most capable of influencing them, are:
1. Musharraf’s resignation, with Senate Chairman Mohammadmian Soomro taking over under the constitution as acting president and appointing neutral caretaker governments at the national and provincial levels with the consensus of the major political parties in all four federal units;
2. postponement of the polls, accompanied with the announcement of an early new election date. The Election Commission announced on 2 January a postponement until 18February. This is reasonable in and of itself but it said nothing about the other crucial changes discussed in this Briefing and which are needed if this step is to contribute to restoration of democracy in Pakistan;
3. full restoration of the constitution, including an independent judiciary and constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association and safeguards against illegal arrest and detention;
4. reconstitution of the Election Commission of Pakistan, with the consensus of all major political parties; and
5. the transfer of power and legitimate authority to elected civilian hands.
Islamabad/Brussels, 2 January 2008
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