The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has put a big question mark on the future of the country. Being leader of the largest political party of Pakistan that represents the left-of-centre political ideology, at least in theory, the person of Benazir Bhutto was one of the centres of gravity in a limited political spectrum of the country, which never grew beyond a few notable names and political organisations due to repeated military interventions. Among these political forces, a majority, at one time, was spawned by the establishment for its own parochial purposes and hardly meets the normative standards of the political leadership. Whoever has hit Benazir, has inadvertently rocked the very foundation of the body politic in this country. It will be after a great difficulty and long effort that the country would recover from the wound that has been inflicted on it. Or will the matters go worse?
With the country plunged in what could be described as civil war in two of its provinces and the extremist violence reminding us of its hideous presence every now and then through suicide bombings carried out every few days in one part of the country or the other, it was hoped that the elections would propel the political process and lead to a political solution of our problems, garner public support and generate consensus for the military action where it was essential. It is a foregone conclusion that the al Qaeda and Taliban extremists cannot be taken out without the use of force with a strong political behind this action. The extremists have gained such influence and outreach that they are almost confident of winning the war against the state of Pakistan. But, given the divisions in society, state agencies and political elite over this issue, it is not possible to launch an effective operation without building consensus. For its willingness to take on al Qaeda and Taliban operating from the Frontier province and its large public following, the PPP seemed a perfect candidate to do this job.
There are alarmist interpretations as well as uncertain analyses of the prospects of democracy in Pakistan when the fundamentalist extremist are hell-bent upon overthrowing the government through terrorism and force. A lot of questions are being raised about the ability of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and by implication, the country, to survive this crisis. Is there any other force on the political scene, which would take up the gauntlet thrown by the extremists?
Having always been a loose organisation, its internal politics has revolved around personalities. It has maintained its dynastic character and more votes are cast in its favour in the name of Bhutto rather than its ideology and philosophy of governance. Benazir Bhutto was the ‘life-chairperson’ of the PPP, obliterating any prospects of democratic politics within the party. Likewise, the central, provincial and lower tier party leaders were nominated rather than elected. In the same manner, at the time of elections, party tickets were awarded to the close gamut of electables, which has always been very fluid except the top party leadership.
Despite these shortcomings, the PPP has a large following of staunch supporters, known as jayalas precisely because of this quality.
Regardless of the number of seats won by PPP, the total number of votes cast to it throughout the country has always remained somewhere around 25 percent of the net total. In a loose party structure, it is always a strong central leadership which acts as a binding force.
Benazir Bhutto remained the undisputed leader of the PPP for good 28 years after the execution of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at the hand of General Ziaul Haq, in 1979, despite her brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto. Although she had to wait for another eight year to come of age to be able contest for the slot of the prime minister, she ran party affairs with her mother as the ceremonial head of the party. Conforming to the tradition of dynastic politics, in her will, Benazir Bhutto nominated her husband Asif Ali Zardari as the chairperson of the party in the event of her death. In a wise move, keeping in view the sentiments of party supporters, who have deep affiliation with Bhuttos as their leaders, Zardari not only decided to make his 19-year old son, Bilawal, the chairperson of the party, he also announced that from now on, all his three children will add Bhutto to their names. Zaridari will look after party affairs till his son comes of age. The young scion has still 2-3 years to go to complete his education at Oxford and six years before he could run for elections. It will be 16 years before he would run for premiership. Although the Central Executive Committee of the PPP has unanimously endorsed the decision, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is still an unproven leader of a very big vote bank. He is still to get himself recognised as an independent political leader. In the meanwhile, Asif Ali Zardari, who is now the co-chairperson, will be the virtual leader of the PPP.
Riding on the wave of sympathy, the party may win majority in the upcoming election and form a government. However, how the party will conduct its affairs without a strong central leader for a long time to come, is a serious question.
Unfortunately, Asif Ali Zardari does not have spotless credentials. In the two stints of Benazir Bhutto in the office of the prime minister, Zardari was reported to have indulged in the most unscrupulous forms of financial corruption, which earned him the title of Mr. Ten Percent and corruption cases at home and several courts abroad. He remained incarcerated for 11 years, first during Nawaz Sharif’s rule, and later during the tenure of General (retired) Pervez Musharraf. The general not only continued to pursue the cases filed by the Nawaz government, he brought more cases against the couple through investigations by a special cell in the National Accountability Bureau, specially created for this purpose. With such a history, it would be a lot more easier for his opponents to discredit Asif Ali Zardari as the top leader of the party without Benazir at her aid. It is questionable whether Mr. Zardari possess the ability and political acumen to capitalise on the lady luck of mass support that smiles on the party fortunes due to the unfortunate death of its leader and strengthen party ranks. Once the wave of public sympathy subsides, Asif Ali Zardari may face serious challenges to his leadership from within and outside the party. In that event, the PPP will be practically paralysed to deal with the challenges confronting Pakistan. The PPP may form a majority government after the upcoming elections, it remains to be seen if it will be able to assume the political leadership of the country.
Political activist and Professor of Physics at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Dr. A. H. Nayyar commented, “Asif Ali Zardari will have to part from his legacy and show sagacity and poise if he wishes to win confidence of party leaders and the people and carve out a place for himself.”
Other than the PPP, no political party claims the same following among the masses nor leadership nor the ideology to assert that they can deal with the crises confronting Pakistan. President Musharraf’s handmaiden/protégé, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) (Q), does not boast liberal credentials as is evident from the role it played in the Lal Masjid crisis. Comprising largely the remnants of the late General Ziaul Haq, important leaders within the party have deep sympathies with the jihadi elements. In riding on the coattails of President Musharraf, the PML (Q) leadership has been compelled to reiterate the “enlightened moderate” sentiments of fight against terrorism uttered by him on several occasions. But this has the potential to pit them against the extremists, who consider anyone who opposes them or does not support them, as their enemy.
There is leadership crisis across the political spectrum. Director Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and senior journalist, I. A. Rehman commented, “Leadership crisis is not confined to the PPP. Every party is a victim to this crisis. Military interventions has not allowed the political process to continue through which new leadership emerges and get polished.”
PML (N) is no different from PML (Q). It is clearly a right-of-centre party, which to date has failed to exhibit any trait of leadership that can understand the threat posed to the country and has the intelligence and ability to deal with it. With a trader class vote-bank, Mian Nawaz Sharif may not think it advisable to hurt the sensibilities his voters by taking a strident position against the jihadi extremists.
The only other party that has come out openly against the al Qaeda and the Taliban is Muttahidda Quomi Movement (MQM). However, MQM’s own credentials are questionable, because it has been operating as a mafia since its inception and only recently showed its armed muscle on May 12, when the Chief Justice went there to address the Sindh High Court Bar Association. Moreover, it is confined to urban Sindh and pursues parochial interests.
This leaves us with small nationalist parties which conduct their politics on ethnic grounds and lack a national base, and religio-political parties whose sympathies and role in training and promoting the jihadis are well known.
In these circumstances, the basic question boils down to the military supremacy over civilian discourse which has stultified the political process and landed us in the position we are in. We are in the grip of religious militancy which threatens to disintegrate the state and establish a Taliban-style regime. In the failure of the state to resolve this basic question, the issues of the development of the people have been completely sidelined. This winter, we are facing the worst-ever power crisis. The wheat is selling at exorbitant price, while the country which once used to export cotton, cannot meet the domestic need of its textile industry. But the logic of the circumstances is pointing towards the inevitable direction, where extremists will be on one side and the state and society on the other. As far as the emergence of genuine political leadership with the ability to take the nation forward is concerned, it seems that the people of this country may have to cool their heels for quite some time to come.