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The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in the middle of the country’s election campaign has thrown the already fraught political future of the country into further confusion.
The subsequent delay to the election has prolonged Pakistan’s latest political crisis, deepening international anxiety over the spread of extremism, the fate of the county’s atomic weapons and the risk of a new partition along tense ethnic faultlines. It has also opened up a new front of discord in relations between Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, and opposition parties that have been pushing for free and fair elections at the earliest opportunity.
So can the elections be fair? Could any opposition party form a stable government? Can anyone improve the security situation?
Stephen Cohen, fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, and Tariq Ali, novelist, historian, political campaigner and one of New Left Review’s editors, are answering your questions on Pakistan’s elections and the country’s political future in a live Q&A.
Will the elections reflect the true will of the people? Also, how important is Musharraf - the person himself and not Pakistan - to the US. Is the US currently looking at him as a threat or a friend?
Raghavendra Jagtap, Minneapolis
Tariq Ali: Very few people in Pakistan believe that the elections will be fair. The interim government is packed with Musharraf cronies, the Election Commission likewise. The only question is whether the results will be cleverly or crudely rigged.
If the latter there could be trouble on the streets. I think Washington has mixed feelings about Musharraf, but with the killing of Benazir Bhutto, the choices are limited. Certainly he is not regarded as a threat. He made Pakistan’s military and air force bases and the country’s air space available after 9/11, helped the US to take Kabul painlessly and suffered three attempts on his own life as a result.
Stephen Cohen: I’ll take on the second part of this question. Musharraf’s importance is critical from the perspective of a few key US leaders, who probably exaggerated his competence and his “sincerity” as an ally against radical Islamic terrorism. I’d say that more Americans now see him as a liability, and this begins with the US military who have encountered Pakistan-based Taliban. On the US left there is a vague commitment to democracy, but no one believes that the US can force Pakistan to hold free elections. Even if it wanted to, the bureaucracy is so used to fixing them that this will not happen. At best I see Musharraf being eased out by a combination of the Pakistan army, which must find him now to be an embarrassment, and foreign supporters, including the US but certainly China and the Europeans who realise that Pakistan must have coherent and effective leadership to tackle its many problems, not least of which is the growing violence in the society.
The Economist magazine in its January issue labelled Pakistan not only the most dangerous country in the world but also a failed state and aired worries that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of the terrorists. What is your view?
Yash Bhatt, London
Tariq Ali: I think it is a dysfunctional state rather than a failed one, but the notion of jihadi terrorists capturing the nuclear facility is nonsense. They would have to capture the Pakistan army first. This consists of half a million men. The nuclear facility is the most heavily guarded place in the country. A handful of senior officers know the codes. So its safe. And its worth repeating that except for a short period following the break-up of the country in 1971, the command structure of the army has never been broken. Even in 1971, the generals responsible for the debacle were asked politely to resign, which they did. Jihadis could only capture the nuclear facility if the army wanted them to and there is no likelihood of that at the moment.
Stephen Cohen: I can provide a gloss on Tariq Ali’s answer - I’ve looked at the question of failure closely in my recent book on Pakistan and concluded that it had failed in pieces, but not comprehensively, as had Afghanistan (which was in some ways a murdered, not a failed state) and several African states, which are hardly states in any sense of the word. Yet, the nuclear assets are perhaps still vulnerable, one scenario for Pakistan would be a falling out among the military, or perhaps a politician trying to divide the military - in these cases, short of total state failure, nuclear assets could be important in a power struggle, and who knows what would happen to them. This is, of course, a distant possibility, and Ali is correct in emphasising the unity of the armed forces. However, there’s a lot of concern that under stress unpredictable things could happen, and Pakistan’s earlier record as the wholesaler of nuclear technology to other states does not inspire confidence.
Tariq Ali: Cohen is right to say that a split in the army could have catastrophic results, but this is unlikely unless the US decided to invade and occupy the country. That would split the army but it is as long a shot as jihadis capturing the nuclear weapons. True that Pakistan sold nuclear technology in the world market on the assumption that everything was now for sale. They weren’t alone. Yeltsin’s Russia did the same.
Stephen Cohen: The fact that we are even talking about this is comforting to me in a perverse sense: the last sentence of my ”Idea of Pakistan” stated that Pakistan could, soon, become America’s worst foreign policy nightmare - I’m not pleased to have anticipated this catastrophe.
Pakistan has remained a key ally of the international community in the “war on terror”. However there seems little international appreciation of its role. What are the factors behind this misperception and how can Pakistan’s image be improved and its role be truly acknowledged by the international community?
Umer Shami, Lahore
Tariq Ali: Its not a question of improving the image. It’s Pakistan that has to be improved. Just take one aspect: education. This is a total mess. Not enough trained teachers, text-books that are a total disgrace, the monopoly of English by a well-off minority, a callous elite that can’t be bothered. Don’t look to the “international community”, whatever that may be. Look at yourself. Hold the mirror high and see what needs to be done.
Stephen Cohen: Even though I have disagreed with Tariq Ali on a number of points over the years, I certainly concur with his answer - and would go further in pointing out that Pakistan has received a huge amount of money for its rather moderate role in the struggle to combat violent extremism that purports to be acting in the name of Islam. While the present government has talked a good game for a long time, in terms of containing extremism, it has also fostered it, and now even the Chinese, Pakistan’s all-weather friend, are worried about trends in Pakistan.
What role could the charismatic Fatima Bhutto, the niece of Benazir and daughter of Murtazar, who was assassinated by the police in 1996 while his sister was prime minister, have in Pakistan’s future? Do you think she could re-unite the family with a joint leadership of the PPP with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari? If so would it help Pakistan?
James Khan, London
Tariq Ali: None, I hope. We’ve got to get away from family-politics in this country. It’s a nightmare. The comparison of Benazir to Kennedy was nonsensical. The Kennedys never owned the Democratic Party and nor do the Clintons as we witness each day. The same re the Bush family and the Republicans. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India is more comparable but that is not a healthy situation either.
Stephen Cohen: On Fatima: probably none, but the PPP is a different matter - more like India’s Congress party. It needs the charisma of the son (if there is any), but it also has a real organisational base. One of Pakistan’s many tragedies is that its parties were never allowed to make mistakes and grow. I told Musharraf, right after his coup, that he ought to reset the system, and allow the parties to grow, make mistakes, and let the Pakistani people correct their errors at the ballot box. Alas, he had other ideas.
Why is the US and wider western world not backing wholeheartedly the democratic struggle of the Pakistan people by asking President Musharraf to step aside?
Mohammad Shoaib, New Delhi
Tariq Ali: Some are and some aren’t. The western media is divided on this question. In any case this can only be solved in Pakistan and by Pakistanis. The fact that the new Chief of Staff General Kayani has withdrawn all military personnel from civilian duties is - I think - a broad hint to his predecessor to follow suit.
Stephen Cohen: I agree, but would also point out that two of Pakistan’s historically important allies, the Saudis and the Chinese, are hardly going to press the military for the restoration of democracy. This is ironic, because perhaps the best route to stability and order (which both crave) is through a more democratic and accountable system of governance.
Can Pakistan have a functioning democratic system without land reform?
Jacob Gulmann, Copenhagen
Tariq Ali: It could but it would remain very weak. Every single government has fudged the question of land reforms.
Considering India and Pakistan were the same country until only 60 years ago, why has Pakistan allowed so many military dictatorships to take power in this period, while neighbouring India has only had one 3-year period of emergency?
Jyoti Malhotra, New Delhi, India
Tariq Ali: For a mixture of internal and external reasons. Internally, civil society in what is now Pakistan was weakened by the departure of Sikhs and Hindus. The Muslim League that came to power lost both its key leaders (Jinnah and Liaquat) very quickly and, in any case, was not a party that had been formed in the course of mass struggles against the British empire as was the case with the Indian Congress Party. What was left after Jinnah’s death was a party dominated by Punjabi and Sindhi landlords with little popular support. The two functioning institutions were inherited from the British: the Army and the Civil Service. The latter ran the show for the first 10 years, then the military took over. This was at the height of the cold war and Pakistan had aligned itself firmly with the United States and was a member of SEATO, the Baghdad Pact and CENTO. The US (as in South America during the cold war) preferred the army in power than any political party that might threaten its perceived interests. The coups of 1958 and 1977 in Pakistan were backed by Washington.
This is a very brief answer to a complex question, but it’s a start...
If the upcoming general election results in hung National Assembly, i.e. no political party is in a position to form a government alone, what will President Musharraf do to take democratic process further?
Mohammad Shoaib, New Delhi
Tariq Ali: In that eventuality the largest single party will spend a lot of money to buy up MNAs (Members National Assembly) and try and get an absolute majority. This has happened in the past and has worked. The pity is that the auctions are held in private. Musharraf will obviously be backing his faction of the Muslim League led by the Chaudhrys of Gujarat. Whether any of this will take the “democratic process” further will have to remain an open question.
Given the law and order situation in Pakistan at present where people even fear for shopping in bazaars, will they have enough courage to go and vote in polling booths when you know the local government bodies are loyal to Q-League?
Gull Larik, London
Tariq Ali: Difficult to predict. A low poll would mean a lack of legitimacy and I have no doubt that bundles of marked ballots are waiting to be cast by government appointees as has often happened in the past.
Is the new parliament likely to reinstate the pre-November 2007 judiciary?
Tariq Ali: If it’s a Musharraf Muslim League victory, then the answer is no. The two major parties, PPP and Muslim League (Sharif brothers) have pledged that they will do so. But were this to happen, the Supreme Court would accept a legal challenge to Musharraf’s legitimacy. They were considering this when the state of emergency was imposed and the majority of judges were sacked, with very little adverse comment from officials in Washington or London.