As politics begins to heat up in Pakistan in anticipation of elections on October 10, the fate of the previous two Prime Ministers is becoming clearer. Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, and Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League, alternated four governments between the two from 1987 to 1999, when the democratic period was ended by Musharraf’s coup. In Musharraf’s view, the two of them played “merry hell” with the country as the PPP and PML traded turns at the public trough of corruption of mismanagement. Their supporters counter that corruption was exaggerated for political gain, and that the army was responsible behind the scenes for much of the instability of the 1990’s. Regardless, Musharraf vowed after seizing power that he would not allow those who engaged in corruption in the past to come back to power. His threats were clearly directed at Bhutto and Sharif.
Nawaz was tried and convicted of attempted murder, but accepted a deal that consigned him to permanent exile to Saudi Arabia, where he went with his extended family in 2000. Bhutto was out of the country at the time of the coup, although her husband Asif Ali Zardari was in jail, and so avoided being arrested on corruption charges. An accountability court found her guilty in absentia, and she has been sentenced to a prison term. Musharraf vows to carry out the court judgment, i.e. arrest Bhutto, if she were to return to Pakistan.
As 2002 progressed, both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto signaled their intent to return and be active politicians in the coming elections. Musharraf responded with several items to prevent them from having a political role. The party ordinances were changed to disallow any officeholder who had a conviction against them by accountability court. There is a pending constitutional amendment that provides a maximum of two terms for any Prime Minister, which would make it impossible for Benazir or Nawaz to be Prime Minister again. Another ordinance required all parties to hold internal leadership elections. Finally, Musharraf has made repeatedly clear that both Sharif and Bhutto face arrest on return.
Nawaz buckled first. He took himself out of the running for PML leadership, and instead he has asked his brother to pursue the top spot for PML-N. The nepotism of Pakistani politics is one of its major defects, but Shahbaz Sharif has his own problems. Two cases have been registered against him in the accountability courts, and whether he will allow the PML-N to put forth a clean challenge in the election is unclear.
A few days after Nawaz Sharif’s surrender, Bhutto, who earlier had been elected head of PPP, also threw in the towel. She accepted the formation of a new party called PPP-Parliamentarian (the 4P party). 4P will have another head but Benazir will be its “spiritual
guide” from abroad. The 4P will essentially be the cleaned up version of the PPP, so that it passes muster with Musharraf’s election rules.
This is a high-risk strategy for Benazir. It is possible that a victorious 4P will select a Prime Minister who would then become the real leader of the party, and Benazir’s spiritual authority will quickly fade, especially if exercised from abroad. Bad for Benazir, but could be very good for Pakistan’s democratic development. Pakistani political parties have been creatures of individuals and families, and to have their inner power structure opened up will be a good thing. Musharraf should have the wisdom to allow a truly free election, and to give the next Prime Minister the leeway to genuinely run the country. Institutionalizing democracy is the one reform that will be of the greatest use to Pakistan over the next 50 years.