Sunday, December 31, 2017
By Raza Rumi
The most worrying developments of 2017 were related to a reversal on the state’s commitment to fight extremism.
The foregoing year was tumultuous to say the least. Pakistan’s ruling elites – elected and unelected – reinforced old patterns of governance. After ten years of democratic transition, it seems that the gains made by the parliament have been partially reversed. At the end of 2017, we witness a resurgence of the judiciary-military combine as they continue to ‘fix’ the ‘political’ arena.
The first half of the year was consumed by the Panama case and two verdicts of the Supreme Court resulted in the ouster of (former) Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The latter was disqualified on a mere technicality and the corruption cases were referred to accountability courts. The apex court by setting questionable precedents only repeated its past behaviour. In short, the law of necessity invoked since the 1950s, rhetorically shunned time and again, continues to be used by other names.
The decision to disqualify a sitting prime minister exposed the inherent weaknesses of Pakistan’s democratic project. That Nawaz Sharif had fallen out with the establishment was an open secret, but the manner in which his third dismissal occurred was alarming for it opens the doors for judicial coups in the future. It was hoped that after Musharraf’s exit, the military had decided to take a backseat. Events of 2017 belie this theory; and it is clear that the military remains in charge not just of the security and foreign policies but also of the overall political direction of the country.
Sharif’s ouster makes the future of his party and dynasty uncertain. Even though there are indications that the establishment prefers his younger brother, it is unclear how would Nawaz factor disappear from the political field? Unless of course there is another exile planned for the former PM.
On the positive side, the national census was completed after two decades. Similarly, the health authorities successfully fought the poliovirus and marginal improvements in education enrolment were recorded
The year was not good for Pakistan’s beleaguered civil society especially for digital freedoms. The year started with the mysterious abduction of social media activists who were released after weeks of detention and had chilling tales to narrate. Their main fault was the criticism of the military but they were painted as blasphemers in the mainstream media so as to justify the entire sordid episode. The year closes with another missing activist from Lahore whose main crime has been to advocate Pakistan-India peace. The shutdown of dozens of international nongovernmental organisations in 2017 is a gloomy sign. Some of the aid groups have not been clean in the past but how can the third sector be collectively punished?
While the judiciary and the military did what they have been doing, the worst perhaps was the conduct of political elites themselves. Nawaz Sharif suddenly remembered the supremacy of the parliament after his judicial ouster. During his third tenure, Sharif rarely attended the parliamentary sessions and his indifference to the imperative of building larger political coalitions resulted in political polarisation. At the end of 2017, he has a few allies, as Imran Khan and Zardari are willing to participate in the new engineering project that will open up spaces especially in the Punjab for them in the next election.
On the external front, 2017 was more of the same with regular shouting matches with Afghanistan, India and the United States. These crucial relationships remain strained largely due to lack of political and diplomatic input in the conduct of foreign policy. The silver lining is growing economic cooperation with China, which will help Pakistan in the long run. However, there were many voices of dissent about the terms and details of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). National debate on CPEC remains one-sided and largely ill-informed with little or no input from the Parliament.
On the positive side, the national census was completed after two decades. Similarly, the health authorities successfully fought the poliovirus and marginal improvements in education enrolment were recorded. The best news from the year was that other than the stock markets fluctuating downwards, Nawaz Sharif’s succession by his loyal associate ensured policy continuity. But the political instability of 2017 and beyond would cast its shadow over the economy. This is one lesson that the permanent establishment of the country is yet to learn.
The most worrying developments of 2017 were related to a reversal on the state’s commitment to fight extremism. Throughout the year, blasphemy was used as a brazen instrument to crush dissenters. The brutal lynching of Mashal Khan happened amid this charged environment and the state cannot absolve its responsibility in aiding and abetting violent religious sentiments. Later in the year, blasphemy was used as a tool to pressurise the government. An ugly display of extremism on the streets of Islamabad for three weeks made a mockery of the so-called National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism. The year 2017 will be remembered for the de facto burial of NAP. As if establishment’s patronage to Barelvi groups was not enough, the ‘good’ jihadists were successfully inducted into electoral politics. Without disarming violent groups, their mainstreaming is suicidal; and yet this seems to be the future course.
Notwithstanding the brave individual journalists and their contributions in Pakistan, the overall conduct of media industry remained questionable. Many television anchors aided the manufacturing of multiple crises, promoted one-sided narratives, and their abandonment of ethics was disturbing to say the least. The removal of PEMRA chairman by a court order in December was another ominous sign for the former was trying to regulate some of the errant TV channels. At the end of the day, the corporate media backed by powers-that-be, won.
The year ahead presents a variety of challenges. Foremost among these is securing a peaceful transition of power from one elected government to another after 2018 election. Transparent and fair electoral process is a key requirement to facilitate the third, rule-based transfer of power in a decade. To achieve that, the political elites will have to reconsider their tunnel-vision politics, shun the establishment-led engineering, and unite against extra-constitutional steps such as a government of technocrats.
She had been in constant struggle against the dark forces of obscurantism right from the beginning. Even when she was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan after winning general elections in 1988, in the aftermath of the death of General Zia, she faced conspiracies at the hands of the then top generals who created IJI for trying to block her path to power by distributing money among her opponents ( the case against the retired generals in this regard is still pending in the Supreme Court after long years). The guardians of Jihadist Project of 1980s regarded her as their arch ideological foe because she supported democracy, equality and peaceful coexistence. She had to pay a heavy price for her struggle. She remained behind the bars for many years and was also forced to live in exile for long years.
But it was more than a narrow political struggle between two ideologies in Pakistan. There was a gender dimension and an international aspect to this struggle. The fierce traditional patriarchy reinforced by religious obscurantism couldn’t accept a woman as leader of the country, even when she was elected by popular vote. Ridiculous questions were raised about the capacity of a woman to perform her duties as a national leader. When the remnants of Zia couldn’t stop her from getting elected as the Prime Minister, they hatched conspiracies to overthrow her. It wasn’t just the ISI, led by General Hamid Gul, that choreographed these intrigues against her government, but the Arab monarchies and Wahabi ideologues were equally active for keeping her out of power. For them, the election of a charismatic women politician as national leader in an important Muslim country like Pakistan can give ideas to the people in their own countries. They generously poured money to block her path in elections, but when they realized that she was too popular and strong to be stopped by political intrigues, they decided to physically eliminate her. In 2007, the question of Taliban project was also important. Although General Musharraf was supposed to be an ally of US in its war on terror, practically, Taliban had not only regrouped in their sanctuaries in Pakistan by this time but they were also allowed to start a new round of war in Afghanistan. It was SMBB’s considered opinion that Project Taliban was as harmful for Pakistan as it was for Afghanistan. She believed that instead of becoming a launching pad for Taliban, Pakistan should cooperate with the elected government in Afghanistan for eliminating terrorism.
I knew Benazir Bhutto because we worked together in an alliance of political parties known as People’s Democratic Alliance ( PDA) in 1990s. I met her the last time in Lahore a week before her murder and had a detailed discussion with her on political and security situation in the country and in the region. I had been sent to her by my party’s leadership to exchange notes with her about the emerging political scenarios. I benefited immensely from her political insights and felt assured that finally Pakistan has a leader with a clear vision, who will steer the country out of the quagmire of extremism & terrorism and take it towards a peaceful and democratic future. I vividly remember her words when I stood up to say goodbye to her at the end of our meeting. She said, “Mr. Khattak, isn’t it very sad that we have to still discuss the same problem that we used to discuss many years ago because they stand unresolved?” Little did I know that it would be our last meeting.
There is a lot of hue and cry about General Musharraf’s latest interview in which he has opined that “rogue elements” from within the establishment might have had a role in SMBB’s murder. It’s true that the former army generals, as part of permanent ruling elite, enjoy impunity in disclosing state secrets or distorting the facts. But in this case, the former dictator doesn’t seem to be wide off the mark. Rogue or not so rogue, there have been elements within the security establishment who worked against SMBB , and in fact, against all progressive and democratic forces. The busted Operation Midnight Jackal and formation of IJI are matters on record. The UN inquiry report on BB’s murder has also given broad hints to this effect. Even today, the tail wagging the dog comes to mind when one seriously evaluates the role of Jihadist elements in formation of security and foreign policies of the country, the pious noises of our leaders in contradicting it notwithstanding.
Be that as it may, SMBB was a political leader and some of her decisions would remain questionable in historical evaluation. First and foremost would be her decision to accept power on the condition of the establishment in 1988. It resulted in legitimizing the controlled democracy that is at the core of political crises even today. Similarly, failure in shaping strong constitutional machinery for conducting across the board accountability is another question about her political legacy. But then, she wasn’t alone in all this. All other political parties also decided to support the deficient and corrupt system contrived by General Zia instead of challenging it. Signing the Charter of Democracy ( COD) in 2006 was an effort at correcting the mistake. As experience has shown, it had mixed results. Political parties have to go a long way in reforming themselves before they could reform the state and society. But there is no doubt that SMBB’s struggle will remain a source of inspiration for the coming generations.
Concerns are being voiced in Pakistan about how a few radical groups with proven terror ties have been allowed to re-brand themselves as political parties.
Taj Haider, one of the prominent and founding members of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has been in power five times since 1970, told VOA the country is again seeing the trend of extremist groups camouflaging themselves to enter into politics.
“Religion and politics cannot go hand in hand, but unfortunately this is our new reality. We have seen the recent by-elections in Lahore and Peshawar where militant-turned-political parties were able to mobilize people and gather votes,” Haider said. “And these so-called new political parties, with proven terror records, look determined to contest the upcoming elections in 2018.”
In a recent high-level party meeting presided by PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Pakistan’s slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the government was sharply criticized on its inability to forcefully implement the National Action Plan and bar proscribed groups from entering the political sphere. The National Action Plan is a 20-point strategy devised to combat extremism in 2015 that clearly states no banned groups can operate in the country by changing their names or identity.
Analysts say many other political parties are also agitated and wary about the recent political dynamic that has allowed radicalized groups to enter the political arena.
“The government has repeatedly said it will not allow the hardliners to enter into politics, but the reality is different, these parties are going into masses,” Rasul Baksh Raees, a prominent analyst from Pakistan told VOA. “As long as these proscribed groups stick to their extreme ideologies and violence, they will be a danger to the society and democracy itsel PPP's acute criticism came as Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), inaugurated the office of his newly launched political party Milli Muslim League (MML) in the eastern city of Lahore.
Pakistan’s Election Commission rejected MML’s party registration application in October, citing its link to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a U.S. designated terror-sponsoring organization.
But MML looks determined to contest the upcoming state and provincial elections. The party has several offices, has launched a website, and has a social media team spreading its messages through Facebook and Twitter. Pakistan's government has repeatedly emphasized it will not tolerate any political party with a proven record of promoting violence and terrorism to use democracy and political means to spread their extreme ideologies. But critics still say the government is not doing enough to stop radical groups from entering politics. “Look what happened in Lahore’s recent by-election and who can forget the power show by extremists on the roads of Islamabad. The government was totally helpless,” Raees said.
During the Lahore election in September, a MML backed independent candidate secured the fourth position in the race. The by-election was also contested by Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TeL), another extremist religious party created to carry-on Mumtaz Qadri's mission, the bodyguard who killed Punjab's Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 after he had demanded reforms in the controversial blasphemy law. Mumtaz Qadri was later sentenced to death.
In November, thousands of followers of the Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labaik blocked Islamabad roads for weeks and demanded the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid, after accusing him of blasphemy. The government eventually surrendered to hardliners’ demands after Pakistan’s military played the role of mediator.
The experts say the emerging trend of politicizing militancy is a danger to democracy. They also point out the sectarian and hardline rationale will further complicate the situation in the country that has been trying to combat terrorism for more than a decade.
“Imagine when these hardliners, through political parties, will spread their extreme views on the grassroots level. What will be the future of this country?” Raees said. But some politicians dismiss the blending of radicalized groups into politics. Haider believes the people of Pakistan can differentiate between politicians and extremists and will not allow militant-turned-politicians to thrive.
“If you look at the past, the religious parties including the Jamaat-i-Islami [an old religious party], despite having a huge following, were never able to clean sweep or get majority in the electoral process of the country,” said Haider.
“Even now, with all these efforts, I believe Milli Muslim League or Tehreek-e-Labaik will not be able to pull large numbers during the general elections. Religious or sectarian votes are scattered in the country and can't be unified and will not help these newly established political parties to win a prominent number of seats.” https://www.voanews.com/a/radical-political-groups-raise-concern-in-pakistan/4186579.html