Pakistan: instability deepens

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In the days following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi on 27 December 2007, Pakistan was brought to a complete standstill as thousands of protestors demanded that Bhutto’s killers be brought to justice. Much of the agitation was directed against the state, with Musharraf being blamed for not taking security measures that could have prevented the assassination. Indeed conspiracy theories swiftly circulated directly implicating the regime in the incident.

This is very doubtful. Bhutto and Musharraf had been on the verge of striking a political deal that would have seen Bhutto’s PPP come to power with Musharraf as President following general elections scheduled for 8 January. The widespread protests at Musharraf’s crackdown in 2007 questioned the regime’s ability to maintain its hold on power. In the face of waning international support and rising domestic op position, reaching a power-sharing agreement with a popular mainstream party like the PPP was one of the few means through which Musharraf could hope to cling on to power.

While the Musharraf government cannot, therefore, be directly accused of masterminding Benazir’s assassination, it was responsible for a domestic environment in which militancy and violence have flourished. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services still have links with the militant Islamist groups they trained to fight in Afghanistan against the progressive government during the 1980s, and the regime’s attempts to combat militancy have been ineffective. This is through lack of will rather than means as Pakistan has one of the largest militaries in the world. In his quest for legitimacy, Musharraf has been willing to work with Islamist political parties and, in return for their support in parliament, has been hesitant to move against militant Islamist groups. Additionally, by suppressing political parties and groups opposed to the regime, and by limiting the political options available to the people, Musharraf has created conditions under which violence and militancy seem to be the only viable means to challenge the state amidst rampant poverty and rising inequality.

Following her assassination, the media portrayed Bhutto as a champion of democracy. In reality, Bhutto was no more a democrat than any of her political rivals, leaders of opportunist political parties that will not bring about any change in Pakistan if brought to power. However, it is the military that is responsible for dismantling the political process in Pakistan and fostering the violent instability that is currently wracking the country. It is therefore imperative that free and fair elections be held and that all political parties be allowed to compete for power in the interests of removing Musharraf and limiting the role played by the military in Pakistani politics. It is only through popular participation in politics that Pakistan will be able to free itself of dictatorial rule and while Musharraf has, in the wake of the assassination, postponed the elections to February at the earliest, it is only a matter of time before the momentum generated by months of protest and opposition finally dislodges him. 

Hassan Javid

FRFI 201 February / March 2008