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Benazir’s Death and Pakistan’s Democratic Future

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 03, 2008

    The assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007 at an election rally in Rawalpindi raises serious doubts about Pakistan’s peaceful political transition to an era of democratic politics. Eight years of Musharraf’s rule has seen growing fundamentalism, political instability and ethnic disaffection. It was thought that reverting to a troika system would bring about the right balance between a democratically elected leader and the Army, which would help arrest disenchantment and address instability.

    ‘Stability’ has also been a keyword for the United States, which thinks that a stable Pakistan is a prerequisite for success in the war on terror. Washington therefore played a key role in bringing about reconciliation between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf so as to help achieve a democratic transition even as the military remained the key player in the polity. Democracy, in the American view, would bring stability, contain growing dissatisfaction against the Musharraf regime and provide space for liberal players and civil society to play a more dominant role in this strategically important country.

    Democratic transition and elections were important for Musharraf’s political survival. Even after doffing the uniform and engineering a mandate to rule as a civilian President, he continued to face a crisis of legitimacy, given his re-election by the outgoing National Assembly. The sacking of the Chief Justice, forcing judges to take a fresh oath of office under the new Provisional Constitutional Order, declaring an emergency, arresting political activists protesting the imposition of emergency, had all put him in a difficult situation and added to his political woes. Elections would have given him a breather to establish the façade of democracy, while controlling and manipulating the government through the infamous Article 58 (2b) restored by the 17th Amendment.

    Benazir was aware of the possible repercussions of an Army-dominated regime. But her compulsions were many. The first of these was to be able to return home and participate in the elections. Second, had she not compromised, her political future would have been doomed in an Army-scripted system, with corruption charges hanging like an albatross around her neck. One way to get out of this quagmire was to cooperate with the Army with the blessings of Washington. In spite of the reluctance of some political parties in the All Party Democratic Movement (APDM) and the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) argued that the only way to defeat Musharraf and marginalise him is to isolate him democratically and challenge him on the strength of a popular mandate. However, Benazir’s real intention was to clear her and her husband’s name off corruption charges and to continue to be politically relevant to the country. The eight years in exile did not help her political career.

    The implications of Benazir’s demise are limited. Her death is an immense loss to the PPP and to the country (which has lost a young leader). But it does not have implications for the future of democracy in an Army-dominated system. Her return was facilitated by a political deal and her electoral victory would have meant very little in terms of strengthening democracy. Though she reiterated her resolve to fight terrorism and fundamentalism, politically she would have wielded very little power to challenge the forces that have sympathisers within the military-intelligence establishment. Moreover, the Army would have continued to remain central to the US-led war on terror and for political stability in the country. Benazir appeared to be the best bet for the Army in its search for a democratic facade. The fig leaf of a democratically elected political leader would also enable the military to use strong arm tactics while taking on the forces arrayed against it.

    Both political parties and their religious counterparts attribute the rise of religious fundamentalism to the war on terror and US policies towards the Islamic world. None sees this as a problem that has arisen out of Pakistan’s dealings with fundamentalists nor do they acknowledge the fact that these forces were reared at home by the Establishment to serve its purposes. The jihadist monster that the Pakistani State created has now turned its attention on its creator. The recent blast in Rawalpindi targeting the ISI headquarters is a case in point.

    The need of the hour is to recognise the menace of fundamentalism as a home grown phenomenon and not one that has been externally implanted. Benazir’s death is a wake up call to those who fail to attribute the growing radicalisation to Pakistan’s political culture and instead see this as an exigency arising out of its support to the US led war on terror. It is time the Pakistani state reorients its policy to fight its own war on terror inside its territory.