Springtime for Pakistan
Guardian, Comment is Free..., March 21, 2008
Like spring flowers, democracy is breaking forth from every pore of Pakistan. On Wednesday the country's newly-elected National Assembly, the lower (and more powerful) house of parliament, voted for the Muslim world's first female speaker. Dr Fehmida Mirza, a nominee of Pakistan People's Party, won more than two-thirds of the votes against her male opponent. A medical professional, and a mother of four, she comes from Badin, one of Pakistan's remotest and most under-developed areas.
The symbolism and substance of her victory are noteworthy. For one thing, she is backed by a coalition of parties who contested last month's elections against each other, but later forged an alliance to oust the country's lingering military ruler, general (ret'd) Pervez Musharraf. The number votes in her favour indicates that her backers can begin to purify the country's constitution of the absurd changes that Musharraf sneaked in during his eight-year rule. One change protects him against any accountability of his two-time abrogation of the constitution, which otherwise is treason, punishable by death; another prevents any legal challenge to any of his actions - appointments, transfers, selections, etc - in any of Pakistan's courts.
For another thing, she, an authoritative female speaker in a male-dominated legislature, is a perfect counter to the predominant view of Pakistan as a falling domino against a global Talibanisation movement. Her party, whose leader, Ms Benazir Bhutto, the Muslim world's first female prime minister, lost her life to an assassin during her election campaign, is the vanguard of political liberalism in Pakistan. Now it is is joined by a right-of-centre Pakistan Muslim League of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He has buried the bloody hatchet with late Ms Bhutto's party and has pledged to a common agenda of building a strong, moderate, democratic Pakistan. Support for the speaker has also come from a far right religious party - Jamiat Ulema Islam ("Party of the Scholars of Islam") - which has in the past opposed to the very idea of women in seats of power. Such is the march of new history in Pakistan that even its leader got up to praise the new custodian of the house, assuring her of his party's "full cooperation and backing".
For a country that has seen women rulers, diplomats, journalists, fighter pilots, scientists, engineers, members of police, armed forces - in short women in every walk of life, having another one in an important position should be an exciting but not ground-breaking development. But a new jolt of energy seemed to go through the national body politic after Dr Fehmida's election because her elevation is seen as a sign of the death of the old debilitating order under Musharraf. It is instructive to note that while the Musharraf spent much effort highlighting his attempts to create a moderate Pakistan, at home he was relentless in trying to break up genuinely moderate political forces. The Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League were his favourite punch-bags. Their leaders were forced out of Pakistan and a combination of coercion and political bribery was used to win over party loyalists to form a hotch-potch of a pro-Musharraf party.
Worse, under the table, he encouraged and facilitated conservative religious parties to dominate the centre-stage. Two months ago, General (ret'd) Ehtisham Zamir, one of Musharraf's close aides, unburdened his guilty conscience by admitting that he had been involved in rigging the elections in 2002 upon direct orders from his boss. What Ehsitsham did not say was that he rigged the elections in the North-West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan, where religious parties routed secular nationalists - of course with the able help of Musharraf's intelligence sleuths.
The people of Pakistan, however, have punched through this fraudulent view of their country. In the latest election, which Musharraf could not steal because of intense international pressure and a nationwide civil society agitation for the rule of law, they have voted overwhelmingly for mature moderates.
Religious parties, who were the third largest group in the 2002 elections with 64 seats, are now a poor sixth with five seats. For eight years Musharraf tried to put a demonic paint on Pakistan's face to scare the world into accepting him as the exorcist. But after Dr Fehimda's election the world ought to acknowledge the truth: the real evil in Pakistan always lurked behind the veil of military dictatorship.