March of the Vigilantes


There is a huge, Benazir-shaped hole at the centre of today’s national assembly elections in Pakistan, and no matter what the outcome, there will be a similarly shaped hole at the centre of the next Pakistani Government.

I am not one of those who thought that Benazir was capable of halting what is beginning to look like Pakistan’s inexorable spiral into further chaos and bloodshed. "Pinky" was never the great democrat lauded in the sentimental obituaries written by her British and American chums (a genre memorably satirised by Timothy Noah). The impulsive misjudgment that led her to expose herself to her assassin by raising her head through the roof of her car was equaled by her political misjudgment in agreeing to the Washington-sponsored power-sharing agreement with President Musharraf.

But her death was a terrible moment for Pakistan. Her campaign offered at least a glimpse of an alternative form of political action to military rule and suicide bombings. She did neither her party nor her country (nor, arguably, her family) any favours by apparently anointing her teenaged son Bilalwal and her much-disliked husband Aisf Ali Zardari as her political successors. Her death generated a wave of support for her Pakistan People’s Party, but that support may quickly dissipate if Zardari (who is not standing in today’s election, despite his role as co-chairman of the Party) positions himself to become Prime Minister.

To some extent, the process of today’s election matters at least as much as the outcome. Pakistan’s current problems are compounded by a lack of political legitimacy. President Musharraf is highly unpopular, with polls suggesting that 70 per cent of Pakistanis believe that he should leave office. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), has long been referred to as the "King’s Party", but since Benazir’s death has acquired an even more sinister sobriquet – the "Qatil" – or "murderer’s" – League. Rightly or wrongly, many Pakistanis believe that Musharraf was responsible for Bhutto’s death. And they also blame him for the current shortage of essentials such as flour and electricity that have rendered life miserable for average Pakistanis. If the PML (Q) performs implausibly well in today’s election, then fears of vote-rigging will be substantiated and the results will be discredited in the eyes of most of the electorate.

If the vote is not rigged – and if its supporters are not frightened from the ballot boxes by the series of suicide bombings that have marked the campaign – then Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party is set to gain the largest share of the vote, and perhaps even a majority in Parliament. However, it will likely have to form a coalition, either with Musharraf’s party or (more likely) with the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In either case, an alliance would require burying a long history of animosity.

But perhaps the most frightening aspect of today’s poll is the sneaking fear that the result may be irrelevant. Contrary to outside perceptions, Taliban-style religious fanaticism is not widespread in Pakistani society. The religious parties have never performed well in the country’s intermittent elections. They benefited in the 2002 poll from Musharraf’s marginisation of other political forces and from a backlash against the US military intervention in Afghanistan, but even then they only scored around 15 per cent of the national vote. This time around, the alliance between the various Islamist parties has fractured, with one of the major parties boycotting the polls while the other participates.

But some Islamist ideologues seem to have decided that it is possible to transform Pakistani society without necessarily being in government. If you bomb a few music and video stores, people will stop selling music and videos. If you bomb a barber shop, you are sending out a pretty strong message about the requirement to grow beards. And if you bomb a girls’ school and send threatening letters to a string of others, then girls are likely to stay safely at home – and those who venture out will do so swathed in the most conservative of veils.

This imposition of vigilante rule has mostly been confined to rural and tribal areas, but it is starting to spread to the cities. There have been regular bombings in Peshawar, and last year’s Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad illustrated that even the national capital – which was designed along similar lines to Canberra and until recently had a similar excitement factor – is not immune.

Until recently, Pakistan’s Islamist extremists were closely allied to the military and in particular to the intelligence services. But in the last year that alliance appears to have broken down, with an escalating number of attacks on military targets. It is still unclear how much of the recent violence has been orchestrated by Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency. But it seems likely that the military and intelligence chiefs have lost control of the monster that they have so long used to terrorise their opponents.

The monster will not gain control of the government, nor of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The existing political and military establishment, backed by Washington, will retain their hold on the central institutions of power. Musharraf may or may not survive as President. The major political parties may or (more likely) may not thrash out some kind of creditable deal among themselves. But it may be too late to leash the monster before it devours the lives of many more Pakistanis.

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