Uncertainty intensifies in Pakistan
Benazir Bhutto's assassination has left Pakistan shocked and unsure about its democratic future. The elections, scheduled for 8 January 2008, seen by both Pakistani and Western analysts as a way of bringing political stability and restoring the democratic process within the country, now appears to be at risk. The Pakistan Election Commission feels that the prevailing insecurity has reduced the possibility of holding a free and fair election. They consider that a free, fair and credible election would be impossible before next month. They have also indicated that a fresh date would be arrived at after consultation with all the political parties. The Election Commission has probably been encouraged in this regard by a comment from the US State Department spokesman Tom Casey who said that Washington wants elections to go ahead as planned if they can be held in a 'safe and secure' way.
The decision of the Election Commission, as anticipated, has received the support of pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q faction. They feel that any delay will favour their fortune and might reduce the current overwhelming sympathy and support for the opposing political parties. This postponement will however be particularly galling for many who were considering the vote as vital, and a means for sidelining popular opinion away from Islamist militants sympathetic to al-Qaeda. It will also be opposed in the streets by followers of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and those belonging to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif faction.)
This anxiety over the internal political dynamics of nuclear Pakistan -- prevailing instability (with over fifty fatal bombings in 2007 largely aimed at military targets and senior government officials) and its deterioration in governance -- over the past few days will only increase concern for its immediate neighbours -- India and Afghanistan -- and also for the wider audience in Europe and the USA.
This has assumed greater seriousness given the fact that over the past few years, militancy and drug trafficking have carved out special sanctuaries not only within the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan but also in other areas of Pakistan including the port city of Karachi. This in turn has led to instability and intense confrontations. We have seen the effects of these factors in Islamabad, Swat and Waziristan. There have also been low-intensity, armed nationalist insurgency in Pakistan's largest province, Baluchistan, and sporadic sectarian violence in the country's most populous provinces, Punjab and Sindh. This has resulted in an increasingly divided nation with an array of disparate power centres that include the military, the political parties and militant groups.
The assassination of Benazir and the subsequent disagreements within the political stage will only add to the uncertainty and create conditions of further instability within the political matrix of Pakistan.
This has led to serious soul-searching among policy makers in the region. Fundamental questions are now being asked as to whether an election will be enough to lift Pakistan out of its current morass. Some are suggesting that an election alone at this time might not be able to generate the kind of national goodwill that will be needed to pull the country out of the crisis.
Benazir Bhutto's party, founded by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was widely seen as a one-person party. The latest decision to appoint Bilawal, her young son, as the Chairman (in waiting) and controversial Asif Ali Zardari, her widowed husband, as Co-Chairman of the party has only confirmed this supposition. This will also raise further questions about democracy within the PPP itself. It is now being felt that this factor might eventually affect cohesiveness and split the party into factions.
The sensitivity of the security situation has worsened over the last few days in Pakistan with an increase in the number of imponderables. Without Ms Bhutto and her considerable grassroots political support, President Musharraf is now being forced to enlist the support of more numerous but less influential individuals to keep things in order. This might eventually enable him to go ahead with elections and get a government in place. He will however have to be extremely careful that domestic pressure and foreign actors do not create a situation which snowballs into another crisis of legitimacy.
The President's credibility is at risk not only because the largest opposition party has been thrown into disarray so close to the elections (creating a void in the system) but also because of charges that his Administration had failed to prevent the assassination of a former Prime Minister in the high-security garrison town of Rawalpindi. There is also the bizarre controversy with regard to the circumstances that led to the death of Benazir Bhutto and also as to the person or the group responsible for the act.
This has only created more confusion. Some have proposed the need for an international judicial commission of inquiry (as was constituted after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri).
This has been suggested because many do not have faith in the tainted judicial process in Pakistan, which is considered partisan. The Pakistani authorities, for the sake of stability and transparency, should swallow their pride and heed international opinion. It will calm troubled waters in the short term.
One hopes that calm will be restored soon in Pakistan. The murder of Benazir has already affected business confidence and the flow of foreign direct investment. That has pushed the government of Musharraf against the ropes. Those wanting democracy to return must also understand the fragility of the situation. Further instability might then end in the re-imposition of a state of emergency and delay in the restoration of the democratic process. One would be tempted to term the situation as Catch-22.
If the scenario deteriorates further, the other option could be Musharraf calling out the military. The new army head Gen Ashfaq Kiyani, Musharraf's handpicked successor, might agree to get associated but would most likely ask Musharraf to step down rather than have Pakistani troops firing on crowds in the streets for the sake of Musharraf. We have seen such a similar course of action taking place in 1969 in the case of President Ayub Khan and General Yahya Khan. Bhutto's assassination could, in such a situation, conceivably lead to Musharraf's political demise if the popular mood in the coming weeks turns sharply against the President and his regime.
In any case, there is bound to be renewed debate about whether President Musharraf is fit to rule. Whatever happens, President Musharraf faces awkward choices in the weeks ahead.
The West led by the United States and Britain, saw Benazir as someone who could work with the unpopular Musharraf to increase political stability and rally opposition to Pakistan's radical Islamists -- especially the al-Qaeda supporters who have carved out a safe haven in the country's lawless tribal areas along the western frontier with Afghanistan. Washington and London supported her bid to return from exile, lobbying hard with Musharraf over the past year to get him to allow her to return without her having to face the slew of corruption charges that had been filed against her. Bhutto tried to repay the United States by speaking out strongly on the need to fight militancy in her election campaign speeches.
She pledged that if she returned to power she would implement many of Musharraf's failed promises including the carrying out of reforms in the country's thousands of Madrassas. She also went on record that she would allow the United States to take unilateral military action against Pakistani tribal insurgents and al- Qaeda in the frontier areas. She also promised to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to interview Abdul Qadir Khan, the discredited father of Pakistan's atomic bomb regarding the alleged sharing of sensitive nuclear technology and know-how with such states as Iran, Libya and North Korea. Largely because of those tough, seemingly pro-Western stands, and because she was a woman vying for political power, she became a target of Islamic extremists. In the changed scenario, it would be interesting to see how far her successors would be willing to pursue this trend of thought. That will remain a source of worry for both the USA and also Musharraf.
The United States had hoped the liberal-minded Musharraf and moderate Benazir Bhutto would share power and form a solid bulwark against militancy. The al-Qaeda, the fundamentalist Pashtun militants and their shadowy sympathisers within the Pakistani civil and military administrations however had other ideas. Her death has diminished Musharraf's already low public standing and once again called into question his ability to govern and to deal with Islamic extremism.
Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador who can be reached at [email protected]