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Benazir Bhutto

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Pakistan: Politicians, Judges and a General

14 May 2008

Pakistan: Politicians, Judges and a General

By Gwynne Dyer

“I want to inform the entire nation that on Monday 12 May 2008, all deposed judges will be restored,” Nawaz Sharif told journalists in Lahore after a crisis meeting with the head of the other major party in Pakistan’s governing coalition, Asif Zardari. But it didn’t happen, so on 13 May Sharif pulled all nine ministers of his Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party out of the government.

This was not just a minor spat between politicians. It heralds a major crisis in the country that is America’s most important ally in the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” and the crisis is precisely about the huge influence that the United States exercises in Pakistan.

The sixty deposed judges at the centre of the dispute were dismissed last November by the country’s military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf. All of them were really fired for defying his rule, and the Supreme Court judges among them in particular for being about to deliver a ruling that would have declared Musharraf’s “election” as president the previous month illegal.

The constitution said that no serving military officer could run for president, but Musharraf was unwilling to take off his uniform until he had won the “election” in parliament and been confirmed in the presidency. If the Supreme Court was going to rule against that manoeuvre, then the disobedient judges would just have to be removed. But the strategy that Musharraf and the United States had created to keep him in power collapsed when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The plan was that Musharraf, by now a deeply unpopular figure in Pakistan, would allow a controlled restoration of democracy in which another close American ally, Benazir Bhutto, would return from exile and become prime minister. For historical reasons her Pakistan People’s Party stood a good chance of winning a free election. Afterwards, she would work together with Musharraf, now a duly elected civilian president, who would step back from the limelight but still exercise ultimate control over the military.

The strategy might have succeeded if Benazir Bhutto had not been killed in December, but much of the PPP’s popularity was really reflex loyalty to the Bhutto family. Her successor as party leader, her husband Asif Zardari, was a deeply controversial figure who could not mobilise popular support in the same way.

The PPP emerged as the largest single party when the parliamentary elections, postponed because of Benazir’s death, were finally held in February, but it did not win enough seats to form a government on its own. It had to make a coalition with the second-largest party, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which had no secret understandings with the United States or Musharraf.

Sharif was the elected prime minister whom Musharraf overthrew in his 1999 coup, and he is unyielding in his opposition to the general staying in office as president. When the two parties formed a coalition government two months ago, they agreed that the judges who were unjustly dismissed by Musharraf would have to be reinstated, but it turns out that they didn’t mean quite the same thing by it.

Sharif understood it to mean that the judges would get their old jobs back — whereupon the Supreme Court would deliver the ruling on the legality of Musharraf’s “election” as president that they were fired to forestall last October. Goodbye Musharraf (unless the army stages another coup to save him, which seems unlikely at this stage).

Zardari, on the other hand, remains loyal to his late wife’s deal with Musharraf, and talks about restoring the deposed judges — but not necessarily to their old jobs, and only as part of a package that also restricts their powers. In other words, they would not be able to pull the plug on Musharraf. All the influence of the United States, of course, is behind Zardari and the PPP.

The first deadline to restore the judges was missed on 30 April. The second passed without any government action on 12 May, and the following day Nawaz Sharif pulled his party out of the governing coalition, which then lost its majority in parliament. He says he may continue to vote with the PPP on an issue-by-issue basis, but what seemed to be a remarkably smooth return to democracy has been seriously destabilised.

The Bush administration’s obsession with saving Musharraf is wrong not just because it is sabotaging Pakistani democracy, but because he does not really serve US interests in the region any more.

Washington values Musharraf because he has gone along with the US strategy of aggressively pursuing “militants” and “extremists” in the Pashtun-speaking regions along the Pakistani-Afghan border. It has repaid him with large amounts of foreign aid and unfailing political support. But it was precisely that strategy that made Musharraf the least popular public figure in Pakistan, and it manufactures far more enemies of the United States (and of the Pakistani and Afghan governments) than it eliminates.

It really is time for Washington to drop both him and the strategy.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The first…more”)

Pakistan: A Chance to Grow Up

12 March 2008

Pakistan: A Chance to Grow Up

By Gwynne Dyer

Two things are needed for the current train of events in Pakistan to have a happy ending. One is that ex-general and more-or-less-president Pervez Musharraf accepts his rejection by Pakistan’s voters gracefully and leaves office without too much fuss. “This is the people’s verdict against him….He should accept the facts and he should not create hurdles and rifts,” as former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf overthrew in 1999, put it.

The other necessary condition of a happy outcome is that the White House, Musharraf’s enthusiastic backer ever since the terrorist attacks of September, 2001, doesn’t try to save him.

Hanging onto the commander-in-chief’s job for ten years, until he was three years past the obligatory retirement age, did not endear Musharraf to his fellow generals, nor was his perceived subservience to American interests popular among them. When the new c-in-c, General Ashfaq Kayani, said after last month’s election that the army would stay out of the political process, he probably meant it.

In that case, Musharraf’s problems are probably terminal. In the parliamentary elections of 18 February (postponed for six weeks after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December), the ex-general’s tame political party, the PML-Q, won only fifteen percent of the seats. That share roughly corresponds to the level of popular approval for him personally in the opinion polls, so he really doesn’t have much to work with.

In retrospect, last autumn’s successful campaign to force Musharraf to doff his uniform was exactly the right tactic, since without the power to command the army directly he has become much more vulnerable to public opinion. He managed to get himself “re-elected” to the presidency anyway, mainly by keeping his uniform on until the old parliament (where his supporters were the largest faction and others could be bought) had chosen him again as president — but that just created a different vulnerability.

The Pakistani constitution forbids military officers from running for the presidency for two years after they leave the armed forces, but Musharraf did not dare retire from the army until he was safely re-elected president last October. Since that made his re-election illegal, in November he fired the chief justice and twelve other members of the Supreme Court whom he suspected of planning to enforce the law against him (plus some fifty other judges), and declared a state of emergency, allegedly about terrorist threats, to give his action political cover.

He got away with that at the time, but now it is coming back to bite him. The state of emergency was lifted in December to hold the parliamentary election, in which Musharraf expected Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to win — and to make an alliance with him. One cannot know what Benazir Bhutto actually intended, but it was certainly Washington’s plan that she would become prime minister, and thus save Musharraf’s presidency by giving it a more or less democratic facade.

Her assassination guaranteed that the PPP, now led by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, would win a majority in the election on a sympathy vote, but it also voided whatever deal there may have been between her and Musharraf. The PPP duly won almost half the seats when the election was finally held last month — and the party led by the man Musharraf overthrew in 1999, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, won more than a quarter.

These two parties have now agreed to form a government together — and to reinstate all the judges whom Musharraf removed from office within thirty days. If they do that, then those judges will surely do what Musharraf intervened to stop them from doing in November: they will rule that his “re-election” in October contravened the constitution, and order him to leave office.

Left to its own devices, Pakistan’s army is unlikely to lift a finger to save Musharraf. Although it has ruled the country for half the time since independence, it is always careful to safeguard its popularity with the public: it only moves to intervene at times of despair, and this is a time of hope. It may be false hope, but the voters feel they have accomplished something, and it would be a grave mistake for the army to defy them.

Could the United States persuade the army to save Musharraf? Not at the corporate level. It might find a few ambitious colonels, but all previous military interventions in Pakistan have been done by the entire military establishment, acting under the authority of its legally appointed commanders. The few ambitious colonels would be repudiated and crushed.

So Pakistan is going to be a democracy again, at least for a while. The coalition is made up of people who do not like or trust one another and the economy needs urgent attention, but at the very least it is better than more of Musharraf. At best, it is a chance for a nuclear-armed country of 160 million people to stop playing zero-sum political games and start taking itself seriously.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“Left…it”; and “The Pakistani..them”)

Pakistan Election

12 February 2008

Pakistan Election

 By Gwynne Dyer

The opinion polls could be wrong by as much as ten or fifteen percent, and they’d still tell you a lot about the state of Pakistani public opinion. As the country heads into the election that was postponed for six weeks after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December, what the polls are saying, basically, is that the president, Pervez Musharraf, is about as popular as piles.

The elections on 18 February are for the National Assembly (parliament), so they do not directly threaten the former general’s grasp on power. Musharraf had himself re-elected to the presidency last October (after attempting to dismiss the chief justice of the supreme court, whom he suspected of planning to challenge the validity of the process). But the real game is about whether he stays in power or not, and that is very much in doubt.

The depth of his unpopularity is truly impressive. A poll conducted recently by the international Republican Institute, a right-wing American organisation for the promotion of democracy abroad, gave Musharraf’s approval rating as a scant 15 percent. That is a 50 percentage-point drop since November. Seventy-five percent of respondents said that Musharraf should resign — and 62 percent believed that his government had some role in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

This popular conviction that Musharraf had Bhutto killed is very useful to the party she led, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), as it guarantees a large sympathy vote. It also explains the PPP’s stubborn insistence, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that Benazir Bhutto was shot and not killed by the subsequent explosion. It seems a niggling detail to outsiders, but it matters electorally since the Pakistani public tends to believe that it is extreme Islamists who blow people up, whereas the government would employ snipers or other shooters.

A rival poll conducted at the same time by another US-based organisation, Terror-Free Tomorrow, produced almost identical results. These are not numbers that the Bush administration would be eager to hear, since Musharraf is its protege. He has been Washington’s loyal ally in the “war on terror” since September, 2001, and his government has been rewarded with about $10 billion in American aid.

Given all this, the IRI’s report that 89 percent of Pakistanis oppose any cooperation with America’s “war on terror” would be especially unwelcome to Washington. Whatever their flaws, the figures have not been manipulated to serve the purposes of the US government. So what do these polls tell us about the outcome of the election?

They say that Musharraf’s tame party in the parliament, the Pakistan Muslim League — Qaid-e-azam (PML-Q), will be thoroughly humbled in the election., winning as little as 14 percent of the popular vote. Bhutto’s PPP, now led by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, will benefit greatly from her death, winning half the votes cast and emerging as the biggest party in the new parliament.

The party of Nawaz Sharif, the man whom Musharraf ousted as prime minister when he carried out his military coup in 1999, is predicted to get 22 percent of the vote. So between them the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) are likely to get almost three-quarters of the votes. That is probably enough to drive Musharraf from the presidency if the leaders of the two opposition parties can stick together.

This is not at all what Washington intended when it put its money on Benazir Bhutto. Her return from exile began as part of a US scheme to shore up Musharraf’s tottering rule by engineering an alliance between the two.

The idea was that Bhutto, in return for an amnesty on the various corruption charges facing her, would come home, win the parliamentary election, and become prime minister. In return, Washington’s favourite Pakistani general would finally take off his uniform (three years after mandatory retirement age) and emerge as a civilian president enjoying Bhutto’s support.

No detail was overlooked. Even the date of the amnesty was chosen so that Bhutto would benefit from it while her main civilian rival, Nawaz Sharif, would not. But Benazir Bhutto’s assassination changed all that.

Whatever the Pakistani public chooses to believe, it is most unlikely that Musharraf organised Bhutto’s assassination. The political compact between the two was far from settled, but it was still Musharraf’s best hope of clinging to power. That hope is now fading fast.

On Tuesday Sharif and Zardari met in Lahore and pledged to form a coalition government after the election. It is an unlikely coalition, for the two parties have traditionally loathed each other, but if it last long enough it would have the political strength to impeach Musharraf, whose “re-election” last year was deeply suspect from a legal point of view.

That would be deeply distressing for the Bush administration, which would lose its most important and obedient ally in the “war on terror.” But it would be a very good thing for Pakistan, whose 165 million people deserve something better than an unending parade of generals ruling over them. And it would probably also be a good thing for the real struggle against terrorism in the long run, since the “war on terror” has been the main recruiting agent for Islamist extremism ever since 2001.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“This…shooters”; and “No…that”)

Bhutto Assassination

27 December 2007

Bhutto Assassination

By Gwynne Dyer

Benazir Bhutto did five years of hard time in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, after her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown and hanged by the worst of Pakistan’s military dictators, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. But she was a woman who liked her privileges and her luxuries, and she was never a very effective politician.

I got to know Benazir Bhutto a bit in the mid-1970s, when she had finished her degree at Harvard and was doing graduate work at Oxford University. She actually spent much of her time in London, in a grand flat she kept just off Hyde Park.

If you knew a lot of people in town who took an interest in Middle Eastern and subcontinental affairs (I had been studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies), and you weren’t too old or too boring, you were likely to end up at her flat once in a while, at what some would call a salon but I would call a party.

A fairly decorous party as those things went in 70s London, to be sure, with everybody showing off their sophisticated knowledge of the region’s politics and nobody getting out of hand, but definitely a party.

The hostess was well informed and quite clever, and she obviously had money coming out of her ears. We knew her dad had been prime minister of Pakistan before Zia overthrew him, of course, but she was neither a serious scholar nor a budding politician.

She seemed more American than Pakistani in her style and attitudes, but beneath the Radcliffe and Harvard veneer she also seemed like thousands of other young upper-class women from Pakistan and India who were floating around London at the time. They called one another by girlish nicknames like “Bubbles,” they didn’t take anything very seriously (including their studies), and they seemed destined for a life of idle privilege.

Then Benazir Bhutto went back to Pakistan in 1977, just about the time that Zia had her father sentenced to death in a rigged trial. He was hanged in 1979, and Benazir was thrown into jail for five years. But when she came out after Zia died, she was already the head of the party her father had founded, the Pakistan People’s Party, and by 1988 she was prime minister. She was only 35.

She was prime minister twice, from 1988-90 and 1993-96, and was removed from power both times on corruption charges. The charges have never been proved in court, but the evidence of kickbacks and commissions, especially to her husband Asif Zardari, whom she foolishly made investment minister, is pretty overwhelming. But that was not the real problem.

The problem was that she never seemed to have any goal in politics, apart from vindicating her father by leading his party back to power. At the start she was hugely popular, but she wasted her opportunity to make real changes in Pakistan because she had no notion (beyond the usual rhetoric) of what a better Pakistan would look like. Pakistan is already pretty good for her sort of people, so it should not surprise us that there was almost nothing to show for her years in office.

If she had become prime minister again, which was a quite likely outcome of the current crisis, there is no reason to believe that she would have done any better this time. Her assassination just makes it harder to solve the crisis at all.

Benazir Bhutto’s party, the PPP, has no alternative leader with national visibility. The other major opposition party leader, Nawaz Sharif, is equally compromised by his past failures, and is currently planning to boycott the elections scheduled for 8 January. Ex-general Pervez Musharraf, who had himself “re-elected” president in October and imposed emergency rule in order to dismiss the supreme court judges who would have ruled his “election” illegal, is totally discredited and unlikely to last much longer.

The most probable outcome is a new period of military rule under a different ruler, simply for lack of a good alternative. It is pathetic that a country the size of Pakistan should have so few inspiring or even promising candidates for high political office.

The vast majority of Pakistan’s politicians, and of the people who run pretty well everything else in the country apart from the armed forces, are drawn from the three or four percent of the population who constitute the country’s traditional elite. It is a very shallow pool of talent, made up of people who have a big stake in the stratus quo and a huge sense of entitlement.

Look east to India, west to Iran, or north to China, and by comparison Pakistan’s political demography is absolutely feudal. So long as that remains the case, it is absurd to imagine that democracy will solve Pakistan’s problems. I admired Benazir Bhutto’s courage and I am very sorry that she was killed, but she could never have been Pakistan’s saviour.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“She was…problem”;and “Benazir…longer”)

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