Inside the Bhutto clan

Six hours before she was executed, Mary, Queen of Scots wrote to her brother-in-law, Henry III of France: “As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him.” The year was 1587.

On December 30 last year a conclave of feudal potentates gathered in the home of the slain Benazir Bhutto to hear her last will and testament being read out and its contents subsequently announced to the world media. Where Mary was tentative, her modern-day equivalent left no room for doubt. She could certainly answer for her son.

A triumvirate consisting of her husband, Asif Zardari (one of the most venal and discredited politicians in the country and still facing corruption charges in three European courts), and two ciphers will run the party till Benazir’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal, comes of age. He will then become chairperson-for-life and, no doubt, pass it on to his children. The fact that this is now official does not make it any less grotesque. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is being treated as a family heirloom, a property to be disposed of at the will of its leader.

Nothing more, nothing less. Poor Pakistan. Poor People’s Party supporters. Both deserve better than this disgusting, medieval charade.

Benazir’s last decision was in the same autocratic mode as its predecessors, an approach that would cost her her own life. Had she heeded the advice of some party leaders and not agreed to the Washington-brokered deal with Musharraf or, even later, decided to boycott the general’s parliamentary election she might still have been alive. Her last gift to the country does not augur well for its future.

How can Western-backed politicians supposedly committed to democracy and presented to the world as “modern and reforming”, ever be taken seriously if they treat their own party as a fiefdom and their supporters as serfs, while their courtiers abroad mouth sycophantic niceties concerning the young prince and his future.

That most of the PPP inner circle consists of spineless timeservers leading frustrated and melancholy lives is no excuse. All this could be transformed if inner-party democracy was ever implemented. There is a tiny layer of incorruptible and principled politicians inside the party, but they have been effectively sidelined. Dynastic politics is a sign of weakness, not strength. Benazir was fond of comparing her family to the Kennedy clan, but conveniently chose to ignore the fact that the Democratic Party, despite an addiction to big money, was not the instrument of any one family.

The issue of democracy is enormously important in a country that has been governed by the military for more than half its life. Pakistan is not a “failed state” in the sense of the Congo or Rwanda. It is a dysfunctional state and has been in this situation for almost four decades.

At the heart of this dysfunctionality is the country’s domination by the army and each successive period of military rule has made things worse.

It is this that has prevented political stability and the emergence of stable institutions. Here the United States bears direct responsibility, since it has always regarded the military as the only institution in the country it can do business with and, unfortunately, still does. This is the rock that has diverted admittedly choppy waters into a headlong torrent.

The military’s weaknesses are well known and have been amply documented.

But the politicians are not in a position to cast stones. After all, Musharraf did not pioneer the assault on the judiciary so conveniently overlooked by Negroponte and Miliband. The first attack on the Supreme Court was mounted by Nawaz Sharif’s goons who physically assaulted judges because they were angered by a decision that ran counter to their master’s interests when he was prime minister. Or take corruption, the cancer gnawing at the country’s core. Are generals, admirals and air marshals the only beneficiaries of kickbacks and land grabs? Power and money had been synonyms for a long time. Both the Sharif brothers, the late Benazir Bhutto and her “Minister for Investment” husband Asif Zardari amassed huge personal fortunes during their time in office.

Some of us had hoped that with her death the People’s Party might start a new chapter. After all, one of its key leaders, Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Bar Association played a heroic role in the popular movement against the dismissal of the chief justice. Ahsan was arrested during the emergency and kept in solitary confinement. He is still under house arrest in Lahore. Had Benazir been capable of thinking beyond family and faction she should have appointed him chairperson pending elections within the party. No such luck. The result almost certainly will be a split in the party sooner rather than later. Zardari was loathed by many PPP activists and held responsible for his wife’s downfall. Once emotions have subsided, the horror of the succession will hit the many traditional PPP followers except for its most reactionary segment: bandwagon careerists desperate to make a fortune.

All this could have been avoided, but the deadly angel who guided her when she was alive was, alas, not too concerned with democracy. And now he is the effective leader of the party.

Meanwhile there is a country in crisis. Having succeeded in saving his own political skin by imposing a state of emergency, General Musharraf still lacks legitimacy. Even a rigged election is no longer possible on January 8 despite the stern admonitions of President George W Bush and his unconvincing Downing Street adjutant. What is clear is that the official consensus on who killed Benazir is breaking down, except on BBC television. It has now been made public that when Benazir asked the US for a Karzai-style phalanx of privately contracted ex-US Marine bodyguards, the suggestion was contemptuously rejected by the Pakistan government, which regarded it as a breach of sovereignty.

Now both Hillary Clinton and Senator Joseph Biden, chairperson of the senate Foreign Relations Committee, are pinning the convict’s badge on Musharraf and not al-Qaeda for the murder, a sure sign that important sections of the US establishment are thinking seriously of dumping the general.

Their problem is that with Benazir dead the only other option for them is General Ashraf Kiyani, who heads the army. Nawaz Sharif is seen as a Saudi poodle and hence unreliable, though given the US-Saudi alliance poor Sharif is slightly puzzled about why this should be the case. For his part he is ready to do Washington’s bidding but would prefer the Saudi king rather than Musharraf to be the imperial message-boy.

An immediate all-purpose cure for Pakistan’s ills is not possible, but there is a solution to the current crisis. This would require Musharraf’s replacement by a less contentious figure, an all-party government of national unity to prepare the basis for genuine elections within six months and the reinstatement of the sacked Supreme Court judges to investigate Benazir’s murder without fear or favour. It would be a start.

Tariq Ali’s new book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power, will be published by Scribner this year

The investigation: frequently asked questions

Who is the man blamed by Pakistan’s government for Bhutto’s murder?

Baitullah Mehsud (34) is the leader of a group of jihadist militants from the Afghan border area of south Waziristan. He has launched a number of attacks on United States forces across the border and has acknowledged links with the Taliban. Islamabad describes him as a senior al-Qaida terrorist. However, he denies responsibility for last week’s attack.

Why are the Pakistani authorities sure he is planner of Bhutto’s killing?

Western diplomats say they have no reason to doubt a transcript of a conversation, said to be between Mehsud and another man, which the Pakistani authorities produced shortly after the attack and which appears to implicate him. It is unclear how the call was intercepted, as the government refuses to discuss the matter. In the transcript, a man identified as Mehsud is heard congratulating one Maulvi Sahib, who then names two alleged killers.

Why do Bhutto’s supporters think al-Qaida was not involved?

Many people inside the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and beyond are deeply suspicious, not only of President Pervez Musharraf, but of the country’s intelligence agencies, which are widely believed to carry out kidnappings, unlawful detentions and extrajudicial killings. The speed with which the government accused al-Qaida did little to allay fears of state involvement, and conflicting accounts of the cause of death have convinced many of a cover-up.

Why was no autopsy held?

The government says it is because Bhutto’s husband refused to give permission. It has suggested the PPP exhume Bhutto’s body and carry out a postmortem examination. Zardari said he had refused permission out of respect for Bhutto and because the results of any postmortem carried out in Pakistan could not be trusted. — Â

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