Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Pakistan: Politics Growing Ever More Volatile As Former Prime Minister Looks For An Opening

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is considering a return to Pakistani politics, according to the intrepid Carlotta Gall, who reports from Pakistan and Afghanistan for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.

Exiled leader considers political return to Pakistan
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is roiling Pakistani politics by talking of a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf and by saying in an interview that she might return to Pakistan before the end of the year.

Threatened with arrest, dogged by corruption charges, Bhutto has sat out the last eight years in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai, while still leading what is arguably the country's largest party with nationwide support, the Pakistan People's Party.
If you think American politics is difficult, you should see what goes on in Pakistan, where the overall situation is in many ways much more volatile.
In that time, she has seen Musharraf, her former chief of military operations, seize power in a coup. She has watched the political turmoil build here as Pakistanis grow restless under military rule, galvanized most recently by Musharraf's ouster of the Supreme Court's chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Members of her party were heavily represented in the outpouring of support for Chaudhry at a rally Saturday, a peaceful rally just weeks after more than 40 people were killed in Karachi in clashes related to his ouster.
As we have been discussing (here for instance), President General Musharraf is obligated by Pakistani law to call an election before the end of the year, and he is forbidden to stand for re-election as a military officer. It is widely believed that the President General sacked the chief justice because he was determined to uphold this particular law. To my nearly frozen way of thinking, this explanation makes more sense as "the last straw" rather than "the single reason", but I digress. In any case, popular support for Mr. Chaudhry has been strong, and visible, and growing. And Carlotta Gall has been very busy: here's her report on Saturday's rally:

Thousands Wait to Hear Ousted Pakistani Justice
ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan, Sunday, June 3 — Pakistan’s suspended chief justice led a cavalcade of about 100 cars jammed with lawyers and political supporters on a 75-mile trip from Islamabad on Saturday, continuing to protest his dismissal by Gen. Pervez Musharraf two months ago.

It was the first trip outside of the capital by the justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, since his trip to Karachi three weeks ago. Violence between his supporters and those of General Musharraf broke out upon his arrival in Karachi, leaving more than 40 people dead.

The government, lawyers’ associations and political parties have blamed one another for the deaths.

On Friday, the government banned protests in the capital, but there was no attempt to stop Mr. Chaudhry’s convoy as it left Islamabad on Saturday morning for Abbottabad, where he was to speak to the bar association.

Along the route, hundreds of people stood waiting at every junction and small town.
Kind of like what we could have here, if we had anything at all.
When the long motorcade passed, they tossed rose petals at Mr. Chaudhry’s car, played drums and chanted, “Until independence for the judiciary, the fight goes on!” and “Go! Musharraf Go!”
I've also seen an uncorroborated report saying that people were also chanting "Death To Musharraf!"

The President-General has been under increasing heat at home for his "alliance" with the USA in the so-called "War" on so-called "Terror", much of which seems to involve tracking down alleged terrorists who were allegedly trained in Pakistan or Afghanistan by ISI (the Pakistani intelligence service) or Al-Q'aeda (the two appear to be virtually interchangeable). Many in Pakistan and Afghanistan see Musharraf as waging war against Pakistan's friends and neighbors; perhaps you will recall that as of 9/11/2001, the Taliban government in Afghanistan was officially recognized by only one foreign government! But I'm digressing again. Carlotta Gall:
“This is not just a movement of lawyers, but this is for you, to bring equality for you,” Ahmed Khan, one of the lawyers representing Mr. Chaudhry, told a rally at the town of Haripur at midafternoon. “That’s why the chief justice is going around the country and why we want him reinstated.”

Mr. Chaudhry never left his car and did not speak to the crowds along the way.
Instead, one of his lawyers spoke.
“We are encouraged and invigorated with the spirit of this reception,” Ali Ahmed Kurd, one of lawyers representing the chief justice in his challenge against dismissal, speaking at Haripur, the main town on the way to Abbottabad and about halfway through the trip. “If things continue like this there will be no general or commander any more.”

He railed against the military commanders running the country and moves by the government to clamp down on the news media. “If you close these channels, can you close off the people’s voice from Karachi to Khyber?” he asked the crowd.
The Pakistani people are not simply upset about the sacking of the chief justice. There's a long list of complaints.
At Haripur, students, workers and retirees who turned out to hear the lawyers’ speeches complained of many things, including rising prices, the increasing gap between rich and poor, the failing education system, support for the United States global campaign against terrorism and the injustice of military rule.

“The work of the army is to defend the country, not rule the country,” said Amir Shehzad, 22, a chemical engineering student at Haripur. “There is a revolution happening. We are facing for many years a military dictatorship and people want democracy.”

Throughout the day, those interviewed along the route seemed to think that General Musharraf should not stay in power much longer. They called for elections, rather than a continuation of military rule.

“People do support the lawyers because they are talking about justice,” said Mubarak Dad Abbassi, 57, a government employee from Rawalpindi, early in the day, adding of Mr. Chaudhry: “I do think there was an injustice to him. People say he should be reinstated and Musharraf should go.”
When the motorcade reached its destination, there was a bit of a party going on.
When he arrived in Abbottabad at 11:30 p.m., thousands lined the streets to welcome him.

The opposition parties led by the former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were out in force, as well as religious parties and other smaller group.

Hundreds of lawyers waited for hours in an Abbottabad park, listening to speeches and poetry and dancing in the aisles and on stage to a popular song whose refrain refers to General Musharraf: “Uncle, why don’t you take off your uniform and go back home? Why don’t you take your pension and go back home?”
And then ...
The chief justice finally began to speak at 2 a.m. Sunday.

He told he lawyers that the judiciary should come forward as a strong institution that people could trust.

“You are waging an immortal struggle for the independence of the judiciary and the supremacy of law and the Constitution,” he said. “You have given a lot of sacrifices, but you are not alone. The judiciary and the ordinary people are standing shoulder to shoulder with you.”

He spoke of human rights and freedom of speech, citing articles of the a Constitution.
Ahh, the old rule-of-law bit. People still go for that, in a big way.

So the Pakistani government took a pragmatic approach:
The government did not try to stop the political rallies along the way in support of Mr. Chaudhry, and the police provided security.

Government pressure was applied instead to the private media channels that have been following him on his tour of the country.

The government media-regulating agency warned all television channels that live coverage of events was not permitted, apparently to prevent them from showing Mr. Chaudhry’s speech and the rowdy cheering and chanting against General Musharraf and the government. By midafternoon, no channel was reporting live from the event.
You see how easy that was?

Things won't be so easy for the President General in the near future ... or will they?
As Pakistan veers toward elections this year, and as Musharraf runs into mounting opposition over his plans to seek a second term, Bhutto, 53, is raising her profile once again and positioning herself as savior of the nation, someone who can lead Pakistan back to democracy and provide a final bulwark against Islamic extremism.

Despite his repeated insistence that Bhutto will not be allowed to contest the elections, Musharraf, aides and diplomats say, has been conducting discreet negotiations for some kind of deal that would allow Bhutto back and him to stay on as president.
Now there's a quid pro quo you could bathe in! Will it happen? Who knows?

Carlotta Gall's long portrait of the former prime minister is quite sympathetic, and well worth reading (especially if you gaze between the lines a bit) but probably not the final word on the subject.

Speaking of gazing between the lines, you might enjoy another blogger's take on all this. If so, check out "Pant Load in Pakistan" from the Rock The Truth.

And speaking of final words, the following news updates from Pakistan's Dawn will serve as well as any, at least for the moment:

U.S. lawmakers raise alarm over Pakistan politics
WASHINGTON, June 5 (Reuters) - Pakistan's use of violent intimidation to quell political protests threatens U.S. and Pakistani interests, and President Pervez Musharraf must be encouraged to restore democratic processes, several U.S. congressmen say.

The unusually blunt comments to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by Sen. Joseph Biden and Rep. Tom Lantos, both Democrats, and Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen reflect growing U.S. unease with Musharraf's handling of a widening confrontation with political opponents and the prospects for Pakistan's stability.

“Over the past two months, we have witnessed the spiral of civil unrest and harshly suppressed protest in Pakistan with increasing concern,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Rice obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.

“The national interests of the United States and Pakistan are both served by a speedy restoration of full democracy to Pakistan and the end to state-sponsored intimidation -- often violent -- of Pakistani citizens protesting government actions in a legal and peaceful manner.” They said Rice should make a public appeal to this end.

Biden is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic candidate for president. Lantos is chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee and Ros-Lehtinen is the panel's senior Republican.
Pakistani opposition says hundreds detained
ISLAMABAD, June 5 (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities have detained hundreds of opposition party activists in advance of a day of protests against the government this week, opposition party officials said Tuesday.

“Authorities have launched a massive crackdown against our activists and more than 200 workers have been arrested in Lahore alone,” said Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a provincial leader of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) which is planning a day of protests in Punjab province on Thursday in support of suspended chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and the media, which is facing increasing government curbs.

Qureshi said the protests would go ahead despite the detentions.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said “some arrests have been made in Punjab where the government feels they were necessary to maintain law and order.”

A spokesman of the MMA, an opposition alliance of conservative religious parties, said some of its activists had also been arrested in Punjab although he did not give a figure.
Thursday ... Thursday ... a day of protests in Punjab province on Thursday ... I'll be watching!