When former Pakistani Prime Minister and popular opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, was recently assassinated while campaigning for the now-in-doubt January 8, 2008 elections the United States mainstream media quickly, without and factual evidence, flung out to the world the line that terror organization Al-Qaeda had struck again this time in attempts to undermine Pakistan’s democracy.
But as no evidence of Al-Qaeda’s complicity emerged CNN et al had to backtrack and fall back on the tried and tested technique of blaming Bhutto’s assassination on still unproven “security lapses” and other vague and uninformed analyses by a conveyor line of experts all distinguishable by their abysmal lack of understanding of the realities on the ground within Pakistan.
First and foremost let us place Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the context of Pakistan’s political establishment. Ms. Bhutto, “President for Life of the PPP,” was a member of Pakistan’s ruling elite and differed little ideologically from military strongman and now president Pavez Musharraf. While the former general’s political techniques are crude, arrogant, imperial and blunt, Ms. Bhutto, a charismatic woman, utilized more subtle populist methods to score political points and to gain popularity with the masses. By contrast, Musharraf, who has the Pakistani army’s backing, feels that he does not need popular support or vote – he can always put guns and boots on the street to get his way.
Both Bhutto and Musharraf are leaders who continued Pakistan’s long utilized political tool and tradition of the “cult of the personality.” That is why her untimely demise has now thrust the Bush Administration into a state of near anxiety over what will happen to the PPP now that its paramount leader is dead. Indeed, without Ms. Bhutto the party is already starting to flounder and vacillate and without a groomed successor may just disintegrate altogether or split into other factions.
Ms. Bhutto was no squeaky clean politician either and while one does not want to speak ill of the dead her rise to political power was not exactly by playing fair. She is reported to have orchestrated the jettisoning of her mother from the top leadership of the PPP after her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979 by another Pakistani military strongman General Zia ul-Haq who came to power in a military coup. General ul-Haq met his end in 1988 when his aircraft blew up in midair ironically paving the way for Ms. Bhutto to become the first woman and freely elected prime minister of Pakistan since the country’s independence.
Her two stints as prime minister from 1988 to 1990, and from 1993 to 1996 and her self-imposed exile, her striking beauty and political astuteness allowed Ms. Bhutto to develop a kind of political divinity that helped to make her supporters and followers fanatical devotees and her enemies just as determined to see her dead. The “cult of the personality” by its very nature provokes such powerful emotional and political intensity that tragic circumstances are often the end result. Pakistan’s long and sordid political history is not one of democratic reforms or democratic institution-building but one of the total failure of the “cult of the personality.”
Indeed, it has become very galling to hear western political leaders touting the virtues of Musharraf by equating his despotic rule and endemic state corruption with democracy. There is no democracy or democratic rule in Pakistan and this has been so for all of 30 years. Sporadic, limited domestic reforms and granting of a few more individual rights and freedoms when a military of civilian dictator decides to do so is not evidence of democracy at work or in progress.
Therefore, to characterize Pakistan as a democracy there must be a sustained, continual record of the rule and respect for people’s freedoms and for the law. There must be a demonstrated history of the strengthening and independence of institutions that guarantee and protect democratic institutions, rights and individual liberties in Pakistan – Things that are missing today.
Moreover, the stark and acute social and socio-economic and political inequalities that presently exist in Pakistan along with archaic, primitive and backward social practices make the case for an unjust and undemocratic society. Coupled with the “cult of the personality” and the rule of “Great Man (or woman)” Pakistani society has sunk into mass dissatisfaction, factional infighting (Musharraf vs the judiciary), political and geographic alienation (dissatisfied volatile and violent autonomous regions), cronyism, nepotism, state-sponsored terrorism and repression, a weak and malleable judiciary and an opportunistic political elite using populist means to “keep the masses in their place” while forging accommodations and “working relations” with the dictatorial regime ion power.
That is why the Bush Administration’s hasty rush to blame a terror organization that would be exceedingly foolish to murder Ms. Bhutto, if as the Administration says, it has sanctuary and safety in Pakistan, suggests that it was all about deflecting suspicion from the Musharraf regime and the powerful Pakistani intelligence service. Nobody even floated the idea that the entity that has the most to gain from Ms. Bhutto’s death is the Musharraf government.
The points is that just as his other nefarious former and now very dead military dictators Musharraf’s people could have planned and executed the assassination and made it look like the work of Al-Qaeda. And too, Musharraf is no stranger to serious human rights abuses and extra-judicial contract killings for political gain. Remember: He did not come to power by legal means but my a military coup and he remains in power after rigging a local election and installing a Supreme Court judge who would “legalize” his dirty work and do his bidding without question.
That is why it is very,very hard to say democracy and Musharraf in the same sentence. Only President George Bush is capable of accomplishing this feat because he still sees Musharraf as one of the key players in his war on terror. But Musharraf’s days may be numbered since the Bhutto assassination took place under his watch. And blaming a Taliban leader all the way in Afghanistan for her murder is nothing more than another mirror used to reflect political heat away from the general.
Moreover, there are two scenarios that have emerged as a result of Ms. Bhutto’s assassination. The first is that internal domestic unrest and anger over the murder will become so intense that the Pakistani army will have to be used to restore some semblance of order that will only further strengthen feelings of resentment and anger. Even if the army puts down this mass uprising in the short term, the long-term prognosis will be a festering, seething rage that can and will spill over into social violence in the not too distant future. Such deferred rage is a toxic brew that can plunge the country into a civil war.
And too, the inevitable clamp down and removal of individual rights are not the kinds of actions that build democracy. The end result of this internal chaos orchestrated by the murder of Pakistan’s most popular opposition leader will create the second scenario: the opposition political movement will become further alienated, further weakened, and unable to the lead the masses or to capitalize on the present pervasive popular anger and channel it into a political movement for genuine change on the ground that can strike fear into the hearts of Musharraf and company.
In an ironic way Ms. Bhutto’s assassination not only exposes the vulgarity of the ruling regime but highlights a missed political opportunity occasioned by the inherent weakness of “the cult of the personality” – cut off the head and the body flounders. In the wake of Ms. Bhutto’s death the disunited, bickering, infantile opposition could only make indignant noises and watch from the sidelines as popular anger and resentment spilled on to the streets in an amorphous, disorganized, ad hoc, instinctive and wholly chaotic manner demonstrating the paralysis and inability of these elitist parties to lead the protests as vanguard organizations and true champions of the disenfranchised.
In the end this is the most telling commentary on these political parties in Pakistan that say they are leading the charge to democratic reform or as Mr. Bush calls it “democratic transformation.” They are all cut from the same bolt of cloth only transforming and re-inventing themselves to suit the conditions on the ground, making political accommodations that do not further the cause of democracy and recycling one dictator after another to the detriment of the poor and disenfranchised. Ms. Bhutto became a target for assassination the moment she became President Bush and the United States Administration’s chosen one to replace Musharraf. The mystery is who carried out the hit.