A Family's Travails Threatens a Nation

Paula R. Newberg, senior associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, is the author of "Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan" (Cambridge University Press)

Even by the standards of Pakistan's dizzying politics, this autumn has been turbulent. Once again, the country is scrambling to adjust to another interim government; once again, disputatious politicians are risking the country's political future.

One month ago, President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari dismissed his longtime Pakistan People's Party (PPP) colleague, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, dissolved the national and provincial assemblies and called for new elections. He was responding to widespread rumors of rampant corruption; public complaints about mismanagement and nepotism, and evidence that Pakistan was rapidly losing credibility in the international financial community. The arrest of a dozen members of Bhutto's government under preventive-detention orders, and the promise of a thorough accountability, were greeted with relief.

But the presumption of guilt in dissolutions and detentions is already encountering difficulties. Last week, Pakistan's Supreme Court found in favor of the deposed prime minister, rather than the president, when it interpreted the Constitution to favor parliamentary rather than presidential prerogative in the appointment of judges. Because Bhutto shamelessly harassed judges during her tenure, a sympathetic ruling was unexpected. Two petitions to restore Parliament are being watched with anticipation--the chief justice has promised further "momentous" rulings--and the detentions are being challenged as well.

This is Bhutto's second fall from grace and she has quickly donned a familiar cloak of political martyrdom. (Her primary electoral competitor, the Pakistan Muslim League's Nawaz Sharif, was also booted from office.) Bazaars are abuzz with hourly rumors that elections will be canceled, despite daily presidential announcements to the contrary and the Muslim League's enthusiasm for an election it believes it can win, the PPP is coy about its participation, and there is conjecture that the army wants neither Bhutto nor Sharif.

Public suspicion is warranted: Dissolutions have become a wearisome pattern of political life. More worrisome, word on the street today is that democracy is doomed in Pakistan. A country that has survived two long bouts of military rule is now informally reevaluating its prospects for popular rule.

No one claims to know fully what is happening. The bill of particulars released by Leghari when he ordered the dismissal resembles every other document used to dismiss a government here. Although Leghari and Bhutto engaged in a vitriolic "he said, she said" exchange during September, Leghari, nonetheless, seemed loathe to invoke a contestable constitutional provision--written by a previous military dictator--that allows the president to fire the prime minister.

His reticence was notable and merited: The Constitution is internally inconsistent, appearing to enshrine popular rule but, in fact, allowing autocracy to seep into the body politic. The superior courts are equally inconsistent: There are precedents to reinstate the government, affirm dissolution and postpone elections. Bhutto and Leghari seem to be hoping that the courts will settle what elections and parliaments have not.

Confusion about the president's intentions is understandable. The caretakers are a motley crew, largely lacking ideology, relevant experience or organization. (This contrasts markedly with the small "Cabinet of excellence" assembled by former World Bank official Moeen Qureshi in 1993, which seems to have set a standard in the public mind.) Bhutto and her ministers--particularly her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, named minister for investment last summer--were branded a rogue's gallery of self-enriching opportunists, but many officials also assumed to be corrupt have retained their jobs. Meanwhile, Leghari has appointed a Cabinet advisor on accountability, whose dossier is variously described as house-cleaning or witch hunting.

Bhutto has accused Leghari of political partiality, rather than a caretaker's neutrality. She believes he is splitting her party to form his own. Some PPP stalwarts have already left her to join the interim government or a splinter group established by her brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, before he was killed by police gunfire in Karachi in September.

Murtaza's murder shadows the current imbroglio. The poisonous competition between the two Bhuttos over their diverging political views inspires profound public skepticism about the ultimate cause for his death. Suspects have died, evidence has been tampered with and, in a bizarre twist, British detectives assisting the murder investigation were discovered to have been privately contracted (apparently, as part of a cover-up) but paid with improperly appropriated state funds, for which Pakistan's high commissioner in London was arrested.

Benazir accused the president of conspiring with her enemies in Murtaza's death; the president chastised her for comments unbecoming a prime minister, and public speculation delights in implicating Asif Zardari in the affair. As befits a family whose tragic trajectory has transfixed the nation for three decades, Murtaza's murder is seen as a piece of the drama between the president and deposed prime minister. Indeed, the president discussed the failed investigation in his order dissolving the government.

Pakistan plays high-stakes politics. Leaders who have not died in office have often been removed. Sectarian fighting between extremist Shia and Sunni parties continues intermittently in several provinces, and is responsible for the deaths of some politicians. Political demonstrations are dealt with harshly by the authorities, as much to preserve political privilege as public order. Dissent is discouraged. Bomb blasts, including two this past week, frequently accompany social unrest. And continuing violence in neighboring Afghanistan, to which Pakistan is presumptive godfather, continues to redound in the local political economy.

Corruption and government instability are constant reminders that, while the country has grown exponentially and changed markedly, politics has not altered much from the 1950s--when government dismissals occurred with similar frequency. The political classes--a quaintly apt description for landlords and businessmen for whom politics is a perpetual plaything--remain at odds with the citizenry, divided by vast chasms of wealth, access and opportunity. Marx called this alienation; today, it is called a crisis of governance.

And crisis it is. As Pakistan inches toward its 50th anniversary, few Pakistanis can articulate political choices that are acceptable and possible. Politicians are at a loss to explain their incapacities and assess alternatives. The 1993 election--feudal-based parties fighting over a nascent middle class--might have been the last of its kind had not this dissolution interrupted political evolution. Today, even the president seems reduced to mouthing platitudes about free and fair elections--remaining silent, at least publicly, about the torpor, anguish and frustration gripping the country.

Outsiders are now the handmaidens for change: The governance crisis has landed in the laps of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Both want to balance the books by restructuring taxation and distribution. But the noninterest of the wealthy (particularly parliamentarians) in paying taxes, and the political parties' threats to scuttle any presidential commitments, jeopardize this effort, too. Little wonder that newspapers openly surmise that the military--paradoxically viewed as a guarantor of democracy, or at least stability--may cancel elections now scheduled for February.

The lessons are clear. Elections don't make democracy, democratic behavior does: obeying the law, placing collective needs above personal gain, conserving and sharing resources, acknowledging differences of opinion. Once again, politics has stopped just short of a precipice. If Pakistan's politicians don't put their house in order, someone else might--and then no one will be satisfied.

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