Sunday, September 7, 2008

elections (I): President Asif Ali Zardari

On 6 September in Islamabad Pakistan's 702-member electoral college, consisting of members of the upper and lower federal houses of parliament and the four provincial legislatures, gave Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the widow of assasinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a resounding victory in a presidential election to replace former military dictator-turned President Pervaiz Musharraf. Zardari received 482 votes from the electoral college, and will become President of Pakistan on 9 September.

On the face of it, the replacement of a military dictator-turned President by a civilian politician should be welcomed. However, such a proposition fails to account for the murky goings-on within Pakistan's ruling political and military classes; for my part, I am concerned.

Pakistan has witnessed varying degrees of political instability since the death of former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in August 1988. Through the 1990s Pakistan had a series of civilian governments, led alternately by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. These governments were notorious for their corruption, for their implicit support for Islamist fundamentalism in Afghanistan, and for their failure to improve the living standards of ordinary Pakistani peasants and workers. Many middle-class Pakistanis, and leaders of the advanced capitalist countries, therefore welcomed Pervaiz Musharraf's coup in 1999 while Nawaz Sharif was out of the country. Following September 11, and a clear warning from US Vice-President Dick Cheney that if Pakistan did not sign up to the 'war on terror' it would be 'bombed back to the Stone Age', Musharraf eagerly signed up to the overthrow of the Taliban. Musharraf's legacy for Pakistan is really quite remarkable: he turned an unstable country into what The Economist described, in an editorial in January 2008, as 'the most dangerous country in the world'. With nuclear weapons, with increasingly wider swathes of the country under the effective control of armed Islamist militants, with a deepening inability to promote living standards amongst the often illiterate poor of urban and rural Pakistan, Musharraf, an apparently socially-liberal man, laid the groundwork for the resurrection of a deepening fundamentalism amongst segments of what is more generally a society that is religious but not fundamentalist.

It might appear that, in these circumstances, the return of civilian government would be welcomed, and indeed it would: but not the current alignment. Asif Ali Zardari assumes an office whose powers were expanded under the Musharraf regime; while traditionally the Pakistani President had been a figurehead, Musharraf gave the presidency the power to appoint provincial governors and service chiefs and to dissolve parliament independently. Zardari will thus be the most powerful civilian President in decades.

And what a President! He has no political experience in Pakistan, having only entered politics upon the assassination of Bhutto. Instead, during the prime ministership of Benazir Bhutto, Zardari was widely known as 'Mr 10 Per Cent': that was the cut that he was rumoured to demand from government-awarded contracts. Certainly, while Bhutto was alive, during the period of her marriage to Zardari the family fortune, which was already stupendous, grew; but while Zardari was imprisoned for corruption and murder by Nawaz Sharif and remained in prison under Musharraf, and while the Spanish and Swiss governments have investigated him for money-laundering and other crimes, he has never been convicted by an impartial court of anything. Nonetheless, corruption allegations will undoubtedly dog his presidency.

Moreover, as the Financial Times revealed last week, corruption charges laid in a British court were postponed when his lawyers presented to the court documents said to substantiate major psychological problems: dementia, depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. That such an individual will have some say in the deployment of nuclear weapons should give everyone pause for concern; I certainly believe that in the global sweepstakes for the role most unstable nuclear power, Pakistan has now reinforced its claim to the title. Iran, by way of contrast, the country that US presidential candidate John McCain has said that he is prepared to bom in order to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons, is, in my view, far less of a threat to world peace than a country run by a possibly corrupt, possibly pyschologically ill person.

Not that I would want Nawaz Sharif to have the power to appoint the President! Prior to becoming prime minister, Sharif amassed a fortune in Punjab through a variety of shady deals involving government pharmaceutical purchases, which in turn allowed him to diversify the family business portfolio to the point that the family became one of the richest in the province. Sharif's principal interest is, like that of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, protecting his family business interests.

Behind these political machinations lie the Pakistani 'deep state': the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a security service with a long history that was built up and 'Islamicized' by former President Zia, armed by the US CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and is now a formidable political power behind the scenes in Pakistani life. Beyond civilian control (despite a recent attempt to rein it in), the ISI is accountable only to the military. It was a major factor in the Taliban assuming control of Afghanistan, and its rumoured involvement in the bombing of India's embassy in Afghanistan in July 2008 is but the most recent of many rumoured involvements in terrorist activity.

The ISI is the real source of political power in Pakistan at present: and no one, to my knowledge, understands its true objectives and operations. Most importantly, the relationship of the ISI to the military is entirely unclear. It is, however, important to remember that the current military chief of staff, General Ashfaq Kiyani, who many see to be as a neutral bystander in Pakistan's political machinations cannot be so, for he is a former director of the ISI. President Zardari will not challenge the power of the intelligence-military 'deep state'; his concern is to remain out of jail. Nawaz Sharif will not challenge the power of the intelligence-military 'deep state': his concern is to keep the family business empire running. The only challenge to the ISI can come, not from the fossilized remains of the political parties that dominate Pakistani politics in order to promote the ambitions of a venal political class, but from the workers and peasants of Pakistan, who continue, as they have for the past 60 years, to bear the brunt of the development failure that is the legacy of Pakistani politics.

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