Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Slouching Toward Islamabad...and February 18

As the 40 day period of mourning comes to an end, nothing very good seems to have come out of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

Eager to capitalize on the outpouring of outrage in the aftermath of the assassination, the Pakistan People’s Party, led by her widower Asif Zardari, refuses to consider any reforms, procedures, or policies that might put time, distance, and cool reflection between it and the election.

Just the opposite, in fact.

The party is insistent on participating in what its own leaders call a rigged election on February 18.

Apparently, after repurposing itself as a dynastic artifact to be passed down inside the Bhutto family, the PPP has decided what Pakistan needs isn’t democracy. What Pakistan needs a quasi-religious cult of personality that will clothe a determined grasp for power with the trappings of a mass movement.

Rallying the faithful on January 28 in the PPP’s Sindh heartland, Zardari proclaimed the new orthodoxy:

The PPP co-chairman deliberated at length in a somber mood about Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and her wisdom, bravery, intuition, leadership, and her martyrdom. He said that Shaheed Benazir Bhutto had the intuition about her martyrdom and her judge is the history.

She has defeated the dictatorial and evil forces by laying down her life. Today, the people consider her as an angel and her politics as prayers. She raised the stature of politicians and forced even the dictator of the day to declare her a martyr.

"We consider her will as an order" announcing that the will would be the part of Shaheed Chairperson's book and added that if our eyes are filled with tears than our hearts are filled with fire but we would transform our grief and sufferings into strength.

There’s more:

The PPP co-chairman also expressed his will to be buried in Garhi Khuda Bux with two pre-conditions including that he is martyred while struggling to accomplish the mission of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto or his life comes to an end while continuing with her mission for Pakistan.

He authorised all the party leaders, workers and the people of Pakistan to halt him and tell if he drifts away from the mission of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto adding that he would have no right to be buried in Garhi Khuda Bux if he drifts off from the mission.

And there’s more:

He pointed out that rotten eggs in politics and these political Eskimos were talking of break up of the party because they don't have the level of intellect to understand the depth of Bhutoism.

More more more:

PPP Sindh Information Secretary and member of the CEC Dr Fehmida Mirza in her brief speech said Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto are not personalities but they are ideology in themselves.

The word made flesh, huh? Somebody please whack these people upside the head with an inverted bust of Hegel.

Zardari made a statement that I do agree with:

He said that “Bhuttoism” starts where intellect ends...

But back to our regularly scheduled rapture:

Zardari urged the party workers and friends to get ready for an effective election campaign. "We will have to face our Benazir on the Judgement Day and we must meet her with victory," Zardari told the party aspirants.

Let’s not forget her anointed spiritual, political, and physical heirs:

The crowded porch where the PPP aspirants scrambled to draw as close to the telephone as possible echoed with slogans of 'Jeay Bhutto'. Taking lead from the slogans, Zardari warned 'the enemies' to listen to the voice of the masses as proof of their defeat. "Benazir is alive," he said, adding he had vowed to fulfill the mission of Zulfikar and Benazir Bhutto while Bilawal Bhutto Zardari would complete the party mission.

The moment he mentioned Bilawal, the supporters broke into another spell of slogans chanting 'Jeay Bilawal'.

The PPP wants to make sure this fervor is on display outside, and not just inside the polling places:

He said that the PPP supporters would stage a sit-in outside each polling station until the results were announced by the returning officers. Mr Zardari said that the Feb 18 polls were crucial for the integrity of the country and the PPP was confronting the forces which were working against the foundations of the state.

Mr Zardari said the PPP had worked out on a strategy to counter the alleged rigging plans of the government and had given necessary directives to its district presidents, other office-bearers and workers. He added that different committees were being formed from this point of view.

And what happens if participating in a rigged election produces a rigged election?

Bad things. Baaaaaaaaaaad things:

Urging the people to vote peacefully, he said, ''God willing we will win the election and by a huge mandate.''PPP workers will stage a dharna at every polling station to make sure that the results are not rigged, he added.

''The upcoming polls must be transparent because they are crucial for Pakistan's future,'' Zardari said, adding ''The polls are crucial for the federation and the survival of Pakistan. People should vote for the PPP to save Pakistan.''

A cynic—and, yes, I am a cynic—would look at this and say that the PPP has knowingly created the expectations, doctrine, organization, mechanism—and intimidating sense of purpose--to trigger a national crisis if the election doesn’t deliver the majority that the PPP wants.

And, for the time being, it looks like the other players in Pakistan’s electoral drama are sitting back and letting it happen.

President Musharraf has apparently resigned himself to the fact that neither the PPP nor the PML-N is willing to enter into a pre-election alliance that will give his regime some popular legitimacy. He might have some master plan for manipulating the election, but politically he’s too discredited to have a voice in Pakistan’s political discourse. All he can do is buckle his seatbelt and hope he walks away from the crash when Pakistan hits the wall on February 18.

The seatbelt strategy is also all the United States has left. The PPP, intent on running as the more-Islamist-than-thou keeper of the sacred Bhutto flame and nothing else, is now ignoring the US except to push its futile and grandstanding demand for a UN commission to investigate the assassination.

Army Chief of Staff Kiyani, eager to demonstrate the army is ready to move into the post-Musharraf apolitical era, has ostentatiously distanced the army from involvement in Pakistan’s civil society and policing the elections themselves. Time will tell if, faced with the PPP’s potential to exploit the power vacuum at the polls, this was a wise decision or another one of the Pakistan military’s extensive list of boneheaded blunders.

Though it’s not openly discussed, one of the primary targets of the PPP’s pre-election chestthumping is the other opposition party—Nawaz Sharif's PML-N.

In order to claim the national/heavenly/Bhuttoian mandate for the PPP, the Sindh-based PPP has to dominate the only other province in Pakistan that matters—the rich, politically powerful heartland of Punjab.

The Punjab was the stronghold of Nawaz Sharif—until Musharraf’s coup forced Sharif from office and out of the country in 1999. Musharraf co-opted what was apparently a large and eager opportunist or loti segment of Sharif’s party to set up what is derisively known as the King’s Party—the PML-Q. The PML-Q and the Punjab are controlled by the Chaudhry brothers, who distribute patronage, graft, and rigged votes throughout the province on behalf of Musharraf.

In a normal election—or one that passes for a normal election in Pakistan—Sharif’s PML-N party and/or the PML-Q would have delivered a defendably strong showing in Punjab, containing the PPP to Sindh, and delivering that devoutly and virtually universally desired outcome—a hung parliament that could claim popular support but would not confront Musharraf or the army.

Now, with its support in Sindh rock-solid after the assassination of its favorite daughter, Benazir Bhutto—PML-Q hacks are literally afraid to show their faces there, and Sharif, identified with the resented rival province of Punjab, is probably not doing much better—the PPP has turned its sights on Sharif’s home turf.

From Pakistan’s The News:

Addressing for the first time PPP candidates by telephone from the residence of the party's Lahore chapter president, Haji Aziz-ur-Rehman Chan, he expressed the intention to resume the election campaign in the Punjab and hold rallies at all places where Benazir Bhutto was scheduled to go after Liaquat Bagh, as the 40-day mourning period for Benazir was over.

Again, from The News:

He said the party leaders reviewed the PPP’s election prospect in the Punjab in a meeting held on Friday and claimed that the PPP would win the election from that province. The PPP leader said he had convened the meeting of the Punjab PPP leaders and candidates to assess the party position in every district of the Punjab.

So far, despite the de facto breakdown in the alliance of convenience between the PPP and the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif has not yet come up with a public political riposte to the PPP’s challenge.

Sharif’s problems are exacerbated by a weaker organization and smaller candidate list than the PPP, and the competition within Punjab from the unpopular but undoubtedly clout-heavyPML-Q.

His political stature also suffered when his brother engaged in a public, graceless, and fruitless flirtation with Musharraf concerning possible PML-N entry into a pre-election national unity government, presumably to pre-empt the PPP’s powerful electoral push for power on February 18.

Now, with the 40 day mourning period for Bhutto over and Zardari out on the campaign trail, it will be interesting to see how the Punjab, the PML-Q—and Nawaz Sharif—treat him. Zardari’s enemies might decide to take the gloves off to keep the PPP from staking its claim as Pakistan’s only truly national party and defining the PML-N and Q as insignificant rump parties even within their home provinces.

The only political figure who seems to have held on to his stature—and sense—is Imran Khan.

Beyond his charisma, craggy good looks, cricket-star hunkiness, international jet-set presence—and miniscule Pakistan Movement for Justice party—Khan feels, thinks, and says the right thing, recognizing Pakistan’s activist judiciary and not a Benazir Bhutto cult as the true heart of Pakistan’s democratic aspirations.

The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Khan during his trip to the United States and managed, through design, disinterest, and/or general obliviousness, to ignore the fact that Khan’s approach to a meaningful election and a healthy civil society in Pakistan is diametrically opposed not only to Musharraf’s, but to the PPP’s:

Khan said he came to challenge conventional wisdom in the US. His argument: An election in Pakistan could do more harm than good. Restoring an independent judiciary, rather than holding elections, should be the first goal. The US "should back the democratic process, by insisting on the reinstatement of the judges, rather than back any individual in an election," Khan said.

Good luck with that, Imran.

Perhaps, now that the mourning period is officially over, Pakistan can emerge from the nadir of navel-gazing, demoralization, panic, and delusion it appears to have fallen in.

Otherwise, the February 18 elections will not provide catharsis, purpose, or unity.

Instead, they will give birth to continued confusion, rancor, and suffering.

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