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16 Sep 2008 06:00
Forget labels. In reality, two giant parties struggle perennially for power in Pakistan.
One is the politicians’ party, whose candidate, Asif Ali Zardari, has just been elected president.
The crude apology for a party system in Pakistan is 60 years old and shows scant sign of changing. First, the politicians have an election and govern for a while. When they falter, the generals take over. Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul-Haq, Pervez Musharraf—they come and go, punctuated briefly by elected prime ministers (mostly called Bhutto). It’s a malign sort of game, growing perilously close to an endgame now. Indeed, Zardari’s inevitably brief tenure may well be the end of it all, as a third party—young, idealistic, fervent and brave—begins to tip the board over. You may not have heard the Taliban so described before, but that doesn’t mean that brute force isn’t with them.
In the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s murder by hands unknown last December, the Pakistan People’s Party had a triumphant election. It possessed just enough numbers in the national and provincial Parliaments to deliver the presidency, but you’d be hard pressed to invent a more hopeless, doomed prospectus.
This president isn’t a politician. He’s a businessmen who’s been haplessly entangled in too much monkey business over the years. Nine years in prison for corruption on trumped-up charges? Perhaps they have never been fully, fairly investigated, but to too many Pakistanis he is Mr Ten Per Cent. He vows to fight against the Taliban and defend United States interests, even when they include US special forces staging bloody raids inside Pakistan’s borders. He promises to put right a broken, increasingly beleaguered economy, and to spend another $15-billion of American aid wisely and well. But what comes next will be failure, unpopularity and a new tide of sleaze allegations.
A year or two down the line, the men in braid will sense a familiar opportunity and mount another coup. Washington, glad to have the military back at the top, will find another $15-billion. The army will buy more guns, and feed more of its private bank accounts. The looting of Pakistan’s hope and Pakistan’s future will proceed on schedule.
The twin supposed champions of democracy—Zardari and Nawaz Sharif—couldn’t have made a lousier fist of the past eight months: any sense of national interest was lost immediately in an orgy of squabbling. The governing party couldn’t have chosen a worse candidate for commander in chief (retaining most of Musharraf’s powers). And Nato’s American leadership, insisting increasingly shrilly that feebleness in Islamabad will give Waziristan’s cross-border invaders free rein in Afghanistan, couldn’t be hastening the demise of democracy more idiotically.
Zardari announced his arrival—to the Washington Post—as a warrior from Sind bent on destroying the “Lahore-Islamabad oligarchy”. The oligarchs scheduled for destruction are Sharif and a military top brass trapped between a new leadership they despise and a religious insurrection that is beginning to dismember the nation.
Yet the Taliban, whom the generals must defeat to get the US’s billions, are much more than a gang of terrorist thugs. They are also a madcap reform movement of young men disgusted by corruption and the godless wheeler-dealers they think have drained the purity out of Jinnah’s “pure state”, and the success they’re experiencing in the borderlands and beyond shows that many ordinary Pakistanis agree with them. It’s a battle for hearts and minds and, on his record, Zardari is the predestined loser of last resort.—
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