|Democracy for Pakistan
By BENAZIR BHUTTO – June 8, 2007
For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the number of religious-based parties is rising, and suicide bombings are becoming a common occurrence of daily life. Extremists have expanded their presence beyond the tribal areas into more settled areas like Islamabad, Karachi and Tank. More militias, hiding under the guise of madrassas (Islamic religious schools), have been established since 9/11. Now, armed vigilantes are kidnapping police officials at gunpoint in the heart of the country’s capital, barely a mile from the country’s Supreme Court and Parliament buildings.
Although he resolutely eschews responsibility, Gen. Pervez Musharraf and his regime have stoked these fires. Instead of building the strong, stable and “enlightened democracy” that he promised after the 1999 coup, Gen. Musharraf has undermined secular forces — by openly rigging elections, clamping down on media and free speech, failing to pursue investigations of innocent civilians who have disappeared, as well as intimidating political opponents by any means, including physical attacks.
He will not brook any opposition. In May, 48 peaceful protestors — lawyers, human-rights activists and ordinary Pakistanis — were slaughtered on the streets of Karachi as they rallied peacefully against Mr. Musharraf’s unlawful suspension of Pakistan’s top judge, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Pakistani media and eyewitness accounts report that members of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the ruling party and an ally of the regime, shamelessly opened fire on these unarmed citizens. Hoping to silence any challenges to their stranglehold over the port city and commercial jugular of Pakistan, Mr. Musharraf’s allies have also cracked down on independent television networks and opposition leaders with impunity. Meanwhile, opposition calls to establish an independent judicial inquiry into who ordered the police to stand by while citizens were killed have been ignored.
Yet this tiger is clearly eating his own tail. Mr. Musharraf’s dictatorship is fueling instability in Pakistan: Oppressed citizens, who are denied a truly representative government that can address their most basic issues, now seek refuge in extremism and religious fundamentalism. In return, their basic needs for clothing, food, shelter and health are being met by the political madrassas.
These madrassas have been given permission to establish FM radio stations to spread their message, something not yet granted to moderate political parties. This has bred a dangerous slide into the kind of intolerance once alien to moderate Pakistan. Faced with growing threats to stability, there is a widespread consensus that restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally-supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization, and to marginalize the extremists.
A return to democracy is not just important for Pakistanis — it is important for the entire world. Yet Mr. Musharraf and his regime are promoting the perception that he is the only bulwark between the West and nuclear-armed fundamentalists. By this self-serving logic, Mr. Musharraf’s fall would be disastrous to success in the war on terror.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In elections past, Islamic parties have always been a marginal force in Pakistan’s elections, having never garnered more than 11% in any parliamentary election. And if free and fair elections are allowed to take place now they will be marginalized again, because the two major political parties — the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) — are secular, moderate and can easily mobilize popular support for state action against terrorists. A recent poll by the International Republican Institute confirmed this view.
Furthermore, no Pakistani, except those on the fringe, disagrees with the movement to rid Pakistan and the region of terrorism, or any militancy driven by misguided religious dogma or sectarian extremism. The truth remains that more than two-thirds of Pakistanis are distinctly moderate and see the tide of extremism currently rippling out from tribal Pakistan as a danger to its self-image and stability. The notion that the toppling of Mr. Musharraf’s regime would be a disaster for Pakistan (or a nightmare for the West) is nonsense.
Pakistan’s counterterrorism objectives will never reach any semblance of success if it is hamstrung by a regime that is dependent on the religious right for its political survival. It is a well-known fact that the political structure that Mr. Musharraf put into place following the most recent general elections has enabled the Taliban to regroup. The Taliban now has an irregular army whose soldiers receive monthly salaries for patrolling tribal areas, collecting taxes and beheading those who are accused of being so-called Western spies or alleged adulterers. An apostasy law, recently proposed by the religious right, hovers dangerously — unchallenged by the regime in parliament.
Clearly, Mr. Musharraf’s government has run out of both ideas and options. The solution to stabilizing this anarchic state cannot be “stabilizing the current regime” when the regime itself relies on fanning the flames of religious and ethnic terrorism to justify its undemocratic hold on power.
Although tribal terrain offers many opportunities for resistance, there is another reason why Osama bin Laden has not yet been intercepted — or that the Taliban find such easy sanctuary once again. If the Taliban are eliminated, or if their poster-boy Osama bin Laden is caught, the international cries for restoration of democracy will only deepen. Mr. Musharraf’s regime needs the threat of an “Islamist takeover” to keep the rest of the world community supportive of its continued grip over Pakistan.
Anti-dictatorship sentiment in Pakistan today has reached a fever pitch. At its core, Pakistan aspires to be a democratic nation. The public longs for a return to democracy through the establishment of a cohesive national government that can oversee election reforms to ensure free elections open to all political personalities, including the exiled prime ministers, observed by a robust international monitoring team under laws that ensure rigging cannot take place.
The regime argues that Pakistani politicians are corrupt and incompetent. The Pakistani public doesn’t think so. They view the politically-motivated corruption charges as an attempt to divert attention from the institutionalized corruption of the military.
Transparency International said in a recent report that corruption under the present regime is much worse than during its civilian predecessors. Moreover, power shutdowns, unemployment and poverty have increased, despite the massive international assistance to Islamabad, including $10 billion from Washington alone.
Recent U.S. government actions toward Pakistan are increasingly encouraging. Pressuring Mr. Musharraf into kick-starting the democratic process is vitally important. It is democracy alone that can undermine the forces of religious extremism as well as give hope and opportunity to the people of Pakistan. The spread of political madrassas and militancy across the country during the eight years of Mr. Musharraf’s dictatorship proves the point.
Ms. Bhutto, chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party, was prime minister of Pakistan from 1988-1990 and 1993-1996. She lives in exile in Dubai.