Pakistan's Frayed Politics

Jayshree Bajoria
Council on Foreign Relations
Thursday, January 3, 2008; 12:16 PM

Following former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination on December 27 and the ensuing violence and social unrest, Pakistan's parliamentary elections have been rescheduled (AFP) for February 18. While Pakistan's opposition parties condemned the delay (The Australian), Bhutto's assassination has further highlighted the chinks in Pakistan's domestic political consensus; political parties that are hardly democratic in the western sense, elections fought and won more on traditional alliances than ideology, and questions about the balance between president, prime minister, and judiciary. CFR President Richard N. Haass, in a new interview with's Bernard Gwertzman, says, "I don't see Pakistan likely to come together in a form of a highly efficient democracy. I just don't see the building blocks there at present."

The death of Bhutto, who carried the hopes of many as the best bet for restoration of democracy in the nation, also has emphasized the dynastic nature of her political party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Benazir took over as PPP chief after the party founder, her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed by the army in 1979. Now, with her death, the reins have been handed over (BBC) to her nineteen-year old son Bilawal, with her husband Asif Ali Zardari in a kind of regent's role. Zardari will lead the party until Bilawal completes his studies at Oxford University. While Zardari will not himself contend in elections, he is expected to name the prime minister if PPP wins a majority. This raises the possibility, reports the Times of India, that the next Pakistani prime minister could be a puppet controlled by Zardari behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, another ex-prime minister and head of the Pakistan's Muslim League-Nawaz, also clings to personality-driven politics. This Backgrounder explains even though there are a huge number of political parties in the country, the class base for most parties has failed to move beyond the traditional elite. CFR Senior Fellow on South Asia Daniel Markey writes in a new Policy Options Paper: "Most parties lack internal democratic processes and mirror traditional power structures, making them inherently less responsive to the electorate." He adds that by most indications, Bhutto and Sharif have not changed significantly from their prior periods in office, and "they might easily revert to past┬┐corrupt, failed┬┐form, should either win power again." With Bhutto gone and Zardari taking over, this fear is even more real now. Zardari spent eleven years in prison for corruption and during Bhutto's time as prime minister, was known as "Mr. 10 Percent" allegedly for demanding kickbacks on government contracts (CS Monitor). The Wall Street Journal writes he could be a problematic partner for the United States.

However, Bhutto's death has brought the country's main opposition parties together in their collective anger against President Pervez Musharraf. Many analysts suggest Sharif now is the standard bearer of this opposition being the only remaining "credible national leader" left (AP). But to the chagrin of many inside Pakistan, the United States and other western governments continue to support Musharraf. The recently retired general pledged in a national address on January 2 to hold a free, fair, transparent, and peaceful election (AP).

Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, paints a gloomy picture: "As I wrote in 'The Idea of Pakistan' in 2003, Pakistan will face a fundamental crisis in five or six years, Benazir Bhutto's assassination may bring that about sooner than later." But a commentary in The Guardian scoffs at the idea of a crisis in Pakistan. In the last fifteen years, it says, Pakistan's "unlikely existence has always been continually said to be threatened but [it] has always, albeit chaotically, continued." A new report by the International Crisis Group suggests restoring democracy will require Musharraf's resignation followed by a full restoration of the constitution alongside an independent judiciary.

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