A New Leader All Over Again?


There is an old saying (or joke, if you like) that the only politicians in the Indian Subcontinent who have given up hope of high office are in the graveyard.

It’s a region where criminal charges, prison, and exile, are not so much records of shame as badges of honour. You just have to look at the list: Mahatma Gandhi, prison, Father of India; Jawaharlal Nehru, prison, Prime Minister of India; his daughter Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister, prison, Prime Minister; Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, prison then Prime Minister of Bangladesh. And of course, Benazir Bhutto: Prime Minister of Pakistan twice, prison, and now exile.

But maybe only temporary exile.

Improbable as it seems, this articulate, intelligent, witty and utterly feckless and indecisive woman is once again poised to take power in Pakistan a country whose voters have stayed loyal to her because of her family name, and for whom she has never done anything other than make grand promises.

This time, it would appear she is going to get a third term in Islamabad almost by default. The current military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, has made such a mess of running the country that he can only avoid his own overthrow by forming some sort of partnership with a popular leader. And Benazir living in very comfortable, self-imposed exile in England and Dubai while she’s on the lam from corruption charges in Pakistan is Musharraf’s choice. Their minions are currently discussing how they will do a deal.

The War on Democracy, the new film  by John Pilger

Musharraf is in strife from every quarter. His most fervent enemies are the country’s millions of fundamentalist Muslims, who see him as a secular US puppet, using Pakistan’s army to harass the forces of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who travel, live and operate on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border. But he is also under pressure from the United States, his main foreign supporter, for not doing enough to harass those same Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. And recently he outraged the influential but normally quiescent middle classes by firing the country’s Chief Justice, who could legally rule against Musharraf hanging on to his two offices of President and Army Chief (both of which stem from a military coup in 1999).

The expected deal between Musharraf and Benazir would bring the latter back to Pakistan run for PM in elections later this year or in early 2008. Musharraf would drop the corruption charges now pending against her and her husband, and abolish the Constitutional provision that a person can only be Prime Minister twice.

Benazir and her Pakistan People’s Party would win any popular poll, and with her support, Musharraf would be re-elected President for five years. She’s already said she wouldn’t have him as Army Chief.

The Benazir-Musharraf deal would do nothing for anyone outside the charmed circle of these two leaders, their sycophants and extended families, including Benazir’s rapacious husband Asif Zardari Pakistan’s Mr Corruption, who was known as ‘Mr Ten Percent’ for the rake-offs he took from major business deals done while he was a Minister during his wife’s previous terms of office.

Happy families: Benazir, Zardari and kids

As Prime Minister, Benazir talked a good game about everything from improving education of women, raising the incomes of the rural poor, land reform, stamping out corruption and limiting the power of the Mullahs, to grandiose schemes like running gas and oil pipelines from Central Asian Islamic republics like Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan through to refineries and loading jetties on the warm coasts of southern Pakistan.

In fact, during her reigns fundamentalism and the Taliban prospered; Zardari, running various powerful Government agencies, was at the heart of a corrupt commerce that had Transparency International ranking Pakistan in the top three most corrupt nations; women’s rights were trampled on; and the grand Central Asian schemes remained grand Central Asian schemes.

To many educated Pakistanis her worst crime was the retention of the infamous Hudood Ordinances, a branch of Sharia law that victimised women to the extent that some victims of rape were charged and punished for adultery. In one infamous case, a blind woman who was raped, was sentenced to flogging because she couldn’t point out her attackers.

Ironically, the Hudood Ordinances and several Sharia punishments like public floggings, were introduced by General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator who overthrew Beazir’s father, Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, and then had him hanged. You would think that Benazir, a woman and victim of Zia, would want these legal atrocities blotted out the instant she took office. But, terrified of an Islamic backlash, she allowed them to remain through her two terms in office. And they remain law today.

If Benazir Bhutto wanted to reassure anyone she had Pakistan’s future seriously at heart this time, she would announce in her opening campaign speech: ‘My first action if I am elected Prime Minister, will be to abolish the Houdud Ordinances. And while I am Prime Minister, my husband will hold no government office of any kind.’

Then again, if Benazir Bhutto had any kind of sense, she would stay completely out of Pakistan politics, because her future failure is already being written, not only by her many powerful enemies in Pakistan, but also in the United States.

Last month, the American Presidential contender Barack Obama said if he got to be US Commander-in-Chief, the US would strike at al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan if the Pakistanis didn’t do it for them. Not to be out-gunned, his rival Hillary Clinton then jumped in to say she would do the same. If those rascals were in Pakistan, and they almost certainly are in the Pakistan tribal areas of Waziristan, Clinton said, ‘I would ensure they were targeted and killed or captured.’

President George W Bush, always slow, said he would do the same if he had ‘actionable intelligence.’ Which, as we now know from Iraq, means any story concocted to justify a military strike.

So, given that Benazir has had two chances to rein in fundamentalism in the past, and has achieved nothing; and given that the all-powerful Pakistan Army, the usurper of Presidents, protects Osama and historically has never submitted for long to civilian leaders (military dictators have ruled for about half the country’s 60-year history); and given that no US leader will get anything but praise for whacking Osama, this is what will happen if all the above-mentioned players stay alive, of course.

Benazir will do a deal with Musharraf. She’ll come back and win the election. She will make grand and futile promises to everyone while her husband gets his snout back in the trough. Taliban and al-Qaeda numbers in Pakistan will rise as combined Western operations in Afghanistan drive them across the border. The Americans will strike ‘Taliban’ and ‘al-Qaeda’ bases in Pakistan. There will be uproar in the Pakistan Army and among the Muslim population. There will be a military coup probably led by a Right-wing successor to Musharraf. Benazir will go back into exile there to
await her third comeback.

All much, much more likely than Collingwood winning this year’s AFL premiership.

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