Dirty politics are killing what is left of hope in Pakistan
Friday, 29 August 2008

Isambard Wilkinson

Islamabad

Pakistan's coalition government collapsed on Monday, leaving the country's ruling party with both a challenge and an opportunity.

Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, withdrew his party, the Pakistan Muslim League, from the government exactly one week after he and his coalition partner, Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP, had forced Pervez Musharraf to resign as president.

The dismissal of the former military ruler heralded Pakistan's fourth stint of civilian leadership in its 61-year history and the subsequent collapse of the "collision government", as it was known, underscored the fragility, and apparent futility, of democracy in Pakistan.
 
In a country that is facing a terrorist backlash, where a civilian government has yet to finish a term and where America is looking for someone to "own" the "war on terror", it also poses the question: who would want to run the place?
 
The answer, it seems, is Mr Zardari, the widower of the assassinated former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. The one?time fugitive from the law known as Mr 10 Percent (on account of allegedly accepting millions of dollars in backhanders) is seeking improbable redemption through the high office of the presidency in elections on September 6.
 
He has reinvented himself as Mr Clean, and may be about to land Pakistan's top job with a mandate from Washington to provide political cover for the Pakistani army's counter-terrorism operations in the frontier.
 
His party's calculation has been that power has only one source in Pakistan: America. And that power is channelled, in the form of billions of dollars, through the army and the bureaucracy.
 
In simple terms: if he manages to avoid assassination, he will be protected against the predations of Mr Sharif, who, meanwhile, has chosen a former judge as his party's presidential candidate and will agitate on Mr Zardari's unwillingness to reinstate the chief justice sacked by Mr Musharraf.
 
But is Mr Sharif willing to risk the ire of the establishment by playing the only - but potentially devastating - card available to him: anti-Americanism?
 
While Mr Zardari's party may be embroiled in horse-trading to forge a new alliance, it has made good its pledge to take "ownership" of the war on terror by issuing unprecedented condemnations of militant attacks, while the army has stepped up its operations against the insurgents.
 
Pakistani forces moved into the Bajaur tribal area, a suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban hub on the Afghan border, earlier this month.
 
The government claims that at least 500 militants have been killed. Similar offensives along the frontier have stoked the Pakistani Taliban into launching retaliatory attacks.
 
Only last week, the Taliban claimed to be behind a twin suicide bombing at an arms factory near Islamabad, which killed 67 people. But while the military has not balked, Pakistan's counter-terrorism campaign needs more than the military and token civilian leadership are offering.
 
Against such a volatile backdrop, the political in-fighting is expected to be dirty. The Financial Times yesterday published details of a medical report that claimed Mr Zardari had been suffering from severe mental illness as recently as last year.
 
The medical report, written by an American doctor, diagnosed a variety of psychiatric illnesses - including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder - said to date from his 11 years in Pakistani prisons fighting charges of corruption.
 
No doubt the PPP will hit back against Mr Sharif, a man who flirted with the idea of appointing himself amir-ul-mominim - commander of the faithful - and imposing Islamic law. He, too, has faced numerous corruption charges.
 
Iqbal Akhund, a former diplomat and senior aide to Bhutto, once described the general perception of Mr Zardari as "one whose baneful influence and insatiable greed, whose activism as 'the First Husband' and interference in administration, led to Benazir's downfall and are the source of all her miseries".
 
Mr Akhund also noted that the army and intelligence agencies remained in control of major policy issues and that civilians were neither confident nor strong enough to take on the generals.
 
Owen Bennett-Jones, an authority on Pakistani history and politics, has observed that "democracy has few supporters in Pakistan". He noted that the similarities in the Bhutto and Sharif governments were striking: neither pushed through significant reforms, both ran up huge levels of foreign debt and both faced corruption charges.
 
Transfers of power in Pakistan are invariably followed by score-settling in the name of "accountability". Officials and politicians face criminal charges and are either jailed or blackmailed into supporting the new rulers.
 
The pressures on this, sometimes justifiably, paranoid, geo-strategic, nuclear-armed Islamic country are great. Will this leadership handle them? The pan-wallahs doubt it.

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