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Democracy Within Our Reach
What's at Stake Saturday in Pakistan

By Asif Ali Zardari
Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pakistan is at a crossroads. The gravity of the situation has led me, at the insistence of my Pakistan People's Party (PPP), to run for president in Saturday's elections. My children and I are still mourning our beloved leader, wife and mother, Benazir Bhutto. We did not make the decision for me to run lightly. But we know what is at stake. Chief among the challenges that all Pakistanis face is the threat of global terrorism, demonstrated again in this week's assassination attempt against Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani.

Returning Pakistan's presidency to democratic governance is a huge step in our country's transition from dictatorship to democracy. I want to help complete this process. I owe it to my party and my country but above all to my wife, who lost her life striving to make Pakistan free, pluralist and democratic.

Pakistani politics has always been a struggle between democratic forces around the country and an elite oligarchy, located exclusively in a region stretching between Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad. The provinces of Sind, the Northwest Frontier (Pashtunkhwa) and Baluchistan, as well as all of rural Punjab, have often been excluded from governance.

The majority of Pakistan's people, across the expanse of our nation, have been ignored and even subjugated by Pakistan's establishment. This concentration of unchecked power has strained our government to the point of fracture. The PPP is the only party with support in all four provinces as well as in Kashmir and the federally administered tribal areas. The PPP's success in democratizing the presidency will strengthen Pakistan's viability as a nation.

Under Pakistan's constitution, the president was to be the head of state but not responsible for day-to-day governance. Two military dictators, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, reconfigured the constitution to consolidate their power; they broadened the president's responsibilities to include the authority to sack democratically elected governments.

If I am elected president, one of my highest priorities will be to support the prime minister, the National Assembly and the Senate to amend the constitution to bring back into balance the powers of the presidency and thereby reduce its ability to bring down democratic governance.

It is essential that our nation's independent judiciary be reconstituted. Judges who were dismissed arbitrarily by Musharraf in November are being restored to the bench by the government my party leads, and I believe Parliament must enact a system of judicial reform to ensure that future judges are selected based on merit.

The PPP and those aligned with us are unequivocally committed to an independent judiciary guaranteed by Parliament, consistent with the constitution and independent of political pressure.

I am committed to a democratic, moderate and progressive Pakistan. My views on confronting and containing terrorism are well known. I will work to defeat the domestic Taliban insurgency and to ensure that Pakistani territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on our neighbors or on NATO forces in Afghanistan.

It is important to remember that Pakistan, too, is a victim of terrorism. Our soldiers are dying on the front lines; our children are being blown up by suicide bombers. We stand with the United States, Britain, Spain and others who have been attacked. Fundamentally, however, the war we our fighting is our war. This battle is for Pakistan's soul. My wife's inflexible stance on defeating terrorists cost her her life. My party and I are struggling to save our nation.

I spent nine years in prison as a hostage to my wife's career and to my party's future. I was imprisoned because of unsubstantiated charges -- which it is now acknowledged were politically motivated -- and was never convicted of anything, even under a judicial system controlled by our adversaries. I turned down countless offers of freedom in exchange for betraying my wife, our principles and our party. Those years made me a stronger person and hardened my resolve to fight for democracy. I wish I could do it at my wife's side. Now I must do it in my wife's place.

The dictatorial forces that have dominated Pakistan for so long are seeking partners to destabilize the new democratic government. The establishment and its allies have unleashed a barrage of attacks against me, my wife and even our children. This is consistent with the politics of personal destruction and character assassination that have defined the elites for more than 30 years. The people of Pakistan have always rejected this campaign and supported us in free elections. We continue to stand firm against the forces of dictatorship.

My family has already paid the ultimate price for our commitment to democracy. The Feb. 18 elections were an important step in Pakistan's transition to democracy. I hope that my own democratic election Saturday will seal the victory of democracy over dictatorship and, at long last, allow our country to defeat the terrorist threat and address the people's needs.

The writer is co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party.

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