When I Return to Pakistan

A protester at an anti-government rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, last week.
A protester at an anti-government rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, last week. (By Anjum Naveed -- Associated Press)
By Benazir Bhutto
Thursday, September 20, 2007

I am returning to Pakistan on Oct. 18 to bring change to my country. Pakistan's future viability, stability and security lie in empowering its people and building political institutions. My goal is to prove that the fundamental battle for the hearts and minds of a generation can be accomplished only under democracy.

The central issue facing Pakistan is moderation vs. extremism. The resolution of this issue will affect the world, particularly South and Central Asia and all Muslim nations. Extremism can flourish only in an environment where basic governmental social responsibility for the welfare of the people is neglected. Political dictatorship and social hopelessness create the desperation that fuels religious extremism.

Throughout Pakistan's 60-year history, weaving between dictatorship and democracy, from free elections to rigged elections to no elections, religious fundamentalists have never been a significant part of our political consciousness. We are inherently a centrist, moderate nation. Historically, the religious parties have not received more than 11 percent of the vote in national elections. The largest political party is mine, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Pakistan's political landscape has been molded primarily by the moderate PPP, which has demonstrated strong and continuous support from the rural masses and the urban elite.

Extremism looms as a threat, but it will be contained as it has been in the past if the moderate middle can be mobilized to stand up to fanaticism. I return to lead that battle.

I have led an unusual life. I have buried a father killed at age 50 and two brothers killed in the prime of their lives. I raised my children as a single mother when my husband was arrested and held for eight years without a conviction -- a hostage to my political career. I made my choice when the mantle of political leadership was thrust upon my shoulders after my father's murder. I did not shrink from responsibility then, and I will not shrink from it now.

I am aware that some in Pakistan have questioned the dialogue I have engaged in with Gen. Pervez Musharraf over the past several months. I held those discussions hoping that Musharraf would resign from the army and restore democracy.

My goal in that dialogue has never been personal but was always to ensure that there be fair and free elections in Pakistan, to save democracy. The fight against extremism requires a national effort that can flow only from legitimate elections. Within our intelligence and military are elements who sympathize with religious extremists. If these elements are not answerable to Parliament and the elected government, the battle against religious militancy, a battle for the survival and future of Pakistan, could be lost. The military must be part of the battle against extremism, but as the six years since Sept. 11, 2001, have shown, the military cannot do it on its own.

Many issues remain unresolved in our political structure. Musharraf is precluded from seeking reelection in or out of uniform. Pakistani law requires a two-year wait before a member of the military can run for the presidency. The general can respond to the people's desire for legitimate presidential, parliamentary and ministerial elections, or he can tamper with the constitution. The latter choice would risk a fresh confrontation with the judiciary, the legal community and the political parties. Such a confrontation could lead to another declaration of martial law, civil unrest, or both.

Civil unrest is what the extremists want. Anarchy and chaos suit them.

The political element in Musharraf's party that presided over the rise of extremism has worked with every Pakistani administration since my government was destabilized in 1996. Its members are blocking the democratic change I have tried to achieve with Musharraf. They fear that democracy will be difficult to manipulate to the benefit of extremists and militants.

My dialogue with Musharraf aims to move the country forward from a dictatorship that has failed to stop the tribal areas from becoming havens for terrorists. The extremists are even spreading their tentacles into Pakistan's cities.

Last week brought a fresh challenge. Just days ago, Pakistan's election commission arbitrarily amended the constitutional provision regarding the eligibility of a person competent to contest for the office of president. As the constitution can be amended only through a two-thirds majority in Parliament, a judicial hornet's nest has been stirred.

My party and I seek fair, free and impartial elections to be held by an independent election commission under an interim government of national consensus. We want a level playing field for all candidates and parties.

In words commonly attributed to Joseph Stalin, "Those who cast the vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote decide everything." That's why we have stressed electoral reforms -- although our efforts have so far been in vain.

President Bush has rightly noted, "The most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism is not bullets or bombs -- it is the universal appeal of freedom. Freedom is the design of our maker, and the longing of every soul."

When my flight lands in Pakistan next month, I know I will be greeted with joy by the people. I do not know what awaits me, personally or politically, once I leave the airport. I pray for the best and prepare for the worst. But in any case, I am going home to fight for the restoration of Pakistan's place in the community of democratic nations.

The writer is chairwoman of the Pakistan People's Party and served as prime minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. She lives in exile in Dubai.

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