With a queered pitch and biased umpires, Pakistan’s struggle for democracy is far from over

Haroon Bilour -s:o Bashir Bilour ANP

ANP’s Haroon Bilour, whose father was killed in the 2013 election campaign, was among those killed at an election rally in Peshawar on 10 July, 2018.

My comment contextualizing the politics of the upcoming Pakistan polls for India Today’s digital edition Daily O, shortly after a deadly suicide bombing at an election rally in Peshawar. The next day, there were two attacks at election rallies, one in Bannu which fortunately took no lives, and a bomb blast Mastung in which the death toll has risen to over 200.

Politics of the upcoming Pakistan polls

With a queered pitch and biased umpires, Pakistan’s struggle for democracy is far from over

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It all comes together: Kashmir Day, banned organisations, and a warped narrative

DIG Khalique Shaikh and PPP leader Sharmila Farooqi negotiating with protesters outside CM House, Karachi. PPI photo

DIG Khalique Shaikh and PPP leader Sharmila Farooqi negotiating with protesters outside CM House, Karachi. PPI photo

It all comes together. When the Sindh government agreed on Tuesday to the demands of the citizens observing a sit-in for over 30 hours in protest against the Shikarpur blast, probably everyone forgot about Kashmir Solidarity Day. It has been observed annually in Pakistan every February 5 since 1991 when the Nawaz Sharif government during its first stint in power demarcated it as a national holiday. Continue reading

Musharraf’s trial and Pakistan

Musharraf and the famous fist. Photo T. Mughal/EPA

Musharraf and the famous fist. Photo T. Mughal/EPA

Below, my (un-populist) take on the Musharraf treason trial, in an opinion piece published in International Business Times, London, Jan 23, 2014. N.B. The recent attack on the bus in Mastung, Balochistan, that killed some 30  Hazara Shia Muslims, including women and children returning from pilgrimage in Iran is an example of the result of Musharraf’s policies of letting the home-grown ‘jihadis’ function. Plus I forgot to mention his role in the murder of Akbar Bugti… Continue reading

Pakistan Elections: Democracy, Dichotomies, and Shades of Grey

Here’s the piece I wrote for the Economic and Political Weekly, India, published on the web today, copied below with minor changes, photos and added links.

Lahore, Dec 9, 2007: (L-R): Nawaz Sharif. Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Imran Khan meet to discuss whether to boycott January 8, 2008 polls. "Boycott, and then what?" asked Benazir Bhutto who convinced Sharif to participate in the polls. The rest is history. Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Lahore, Dec 9, 2007: (L-R): Nawaz Sharif. Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Imran Khan meet to discuss whether to boycott January 8, 2008 polls. “Boycott, and then what?” asked Benazir Bhutto who convinced Sharif to participate in the polls. The rest is history. Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

The recent elections in Pakistan show that the country is finally on the right track notwithstanding the rigging, the violence and the brutal prevention of women from voting in some areas by representatives of all the political parties. The huge turnout of women and first time young voters risking their lives to exercise their right to choose is something to celebrate and strengthen Continue reading

PERSONAL POLITICAL: Welcome home Mr Ghanshyam

Kathak dancer Babar with his Ustad Sheema's Ustad Mr Ghanshyam, and Iqbal Alavi of Irtiqa Institute for Social Sciences at the last day of Tlism. photo: beena sarwar

Karachi, March 27, 2010 – Personal Political column for Hardnews, India

Beena Sarwar

One thing is for sure. Life is never dull in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) at the last minute backtracked from his support to the proposed 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Talk about bursting a bubble. Continue reading

See what Nawaz Sharif stymied… Zardari’s speech that never was

The proposed Constitutional amendment package that Nawaz Sharif backed away from at the 11th hour (after having promised to support it) was to have restored federalism, provincial rights, and Parliamentary sovereignty, besides doing away with the President’s powers to dissolve assemblies.

Here’s a front page report from The News, Saturday, March 27, 2010:

Zardari’s speech that never was

By our correspondent

ISLAMABAD: President Asif Zardari was all set to deliver the speech before a joint sitting on Friday to take the lead in announcing the omission of Article 58(2)b, empowering the president to dissolve the National Assembly.

The draft of the speech (available with The News) nullifies the rumours that the president may have been reluctant to give away his power to dissolve the Assembly. Sources say that the president did not even interfere in the affairs of the constitutional committee leaving its head Senator Raza Rabbani absolutely independent in deciding things. Continue reading

The curse of living in ‘interesting times’

My recent column, published in Hardnews, India and The News on Sunday, Pakistan


The curse of living in ‘interesting times’

Beena Sarwar

Visiting newspaper offices in Sweden some years ago, I was struck by the relative ease and routine manner in which journalists obtained information. Any envy was overtaken by the comforting thought that at least it’s never boring to be a journalist in Pakistan. Someone obviously threw the proverbial Chinese curse at us: “May you live in interesting times” and added, for good measure, “not just interesting, but downright dangerous”.

The roller coaster ride of Pakistan continues, with many passengers unsure whether the seat belts and the mechanisms are in working order. As I write this, speculations are rife about the ‘expected’ change of face in government. But then, if one were to believe the forecasts of newspaper and television pundits, this would have happened months after the first elected government in 12 years took over power in March 2008. Continue reading

A 1991 NYT report, sadly still relevant

Shaheryar Azhar, moderator The Forum, makes some relevant points based on ‘In Pakistan, War Stirs Emotions and Politics’ by Barbara Crossette, Feb 1, 1991, New York Times.

In Pakistan, War Stirs Emotions and Politics

By BARBARA CROSSETTE, Special to The New York Times
Published: Friday, February 1, 1991

Reactions to the American-led war against Iraq have created political havoc in Pakistan, where the Government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been trying to stabilize the country and restart the economy after a year of domestic turmoil.

A rift of unpredictable consequences has opened between the Prime Minister, who generally supports the Saudi Arabian and allied view on Iraq, and the Pakistani military, which is still smarting from the cutoff of American aid in October. [Complete article here]

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POLITICS-PAKISTAN: Court Ruling May Deepen Political Crisis


"Nawaz Sharif disqualified" reads the headline

Analysis by Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Feb 26 (IPS) – The political chasm in crisis-riddled Pakistan has deepened after a Supreme Court ruling barred from political office opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab – the country’s most populous and powerful province.

The Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party had joined hands with President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to defeat political parties supporting former president Pervez Musharraf in elections last February, and force his resignation six months later.

But the alliance between Pakistan’s two main political parties fell apart, mainly over the restoration to office of chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Choudhry – whose dismissal by Musharraf in 2007 sparked unrest led by the legal fraternity.

“The move [Wednesday’s apex court ruling] plunges Pakistan back into familiar territory,” said PML-N parliamentarian Ayaz Amir, talking to IPS on the phone from the capital Islamabad. “Another crisis, another round of turbulence… We seem to be cursed with the Chinese saying, ‘may you live in interesting times’.”

For most, the Supreme Court ruling – which upheld a lower court verdict, last June, that made Nawaz Sharif ineligible to stand for elections on airplane hijacking charges – has come “like a bolt from the blue,” as Asha’ar Rehman, resident editor of the daily ‘Dawn’ in Lahore put it.

“The political repercussions will be horrific. We were hoping they would show some maturity and let a reconciliation happen,” added Rehman, talking to IPS from Lahore, capital of the Punjab and the stronghold of the Sharifs.

Iqbal Haider, advocate and chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, termed the decision as being “against democracy, not against the Sharif brothers’’.

In a no-holds barred press conference at his Lahore residence, shortly after the court ruling, a belligerent Nawaz Sharif said he had no problems with the PPP, but held the party head, Zardari, directly responsible for the contentious judgement.

Sharif, a former prime minister, also accused Zardari of offering a “business deal” to Shahbaz Sharif, asking him to support the government in extending the tenure of the current chief justice in return for which the court would provide the brothers with relief.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar dismissed these charges as a knee-jerk response. “The allegations that PML-N chief has levelled against President Zardari are far from reality and are based on ill intention,” he told a press conference in Islamabad later that evening.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman called for examining the court ruling dispassionately while admitting it had created a problem for the government in its efforts for reconciliation.

Many PPP parliamentarians, although unhappy about the decision, say there is unfortunately nothing the party can do in this regard.

The ruling is seen a “technical knockout” for the Sharif brothers who now also stand barred from contesting elections.

“More than anything, it undermines the democratic legitimacy of the government,” political analyst and economist Asad Sayeed told IPS. “Nawaz Sharif is a popular political leader. This decision will push him to the wall and perhaps further towards the religious parties.”

Within hours, President Asif Ali Zardari imposed direct central rule in the Punjab for two months. Defending the decision, a PPP spokesperson cited potential “anarchy” as angry activists took to the streets after Sharif in a press conference exhorted people to come out in protest.

The government wisely refrained from using police force to prevent the protests, as angry activists in various cities burned tyres, blocked traffic, and attacked property. In Rawalpindi, some even destroyed posters of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and damaged the memorial at the public park where she was assassinated on Dec. 27, 2008.

‘Religious militants’ are widely believed to be behind her murder, barely two weeks before the scheduled polls which Bhutto had convinced her former rival Nawaz Sharif to contest, instead of boycotting them as he was planning to do.

Both twice-elected and twice-removed prime ministers had then returned from several years of exile abroad. During this time, army chief Pervez Musharraf headed Pakistan, after ousting Nawaz Sharif from the prime ministership in 1999.

Sharif had tried to replace the army chief and prevent the civilian flight bearing Musharraf back from an official visit to Sri Lanka, from landing in Pakistan. This was the ‘hijacking’ case for which Sharif was convicted, grounds now for his disqualification from public office or contesting elections.

Bhutto’s return to politics in Pakistan in October 2007 was widely seen as part of a ‘deal’ brokered by Washington to restore civilian rule in Pakistan in order to better handle the ‘war on terror’ – for which policy makers were by now prescribing a political rather than a military solution.

The widespread secular movement led by lawyers to restore chief justice Choudhry had also presented the possibility of progressive political change in Pakistan.

After the general elections of Feb. 18, 2008, the PPP and PML-N had agreed to form government as well as to restore the judges whom Musharraf had removed when he imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3, 2007.

“What people forget about the agreement was that it was also about government formation – the other two clauses were how the federal and the provincial governments were going to be formed,” said Asad Sayeed.

“Nawaz Sharif insisted on the judges’ restoration in order to undermine the PPP. They could not have moved towards forming government if Zardari had not agreed on this clause because Sharif was not willing to talk about it.”

Sharif continued to push for the restoration of chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Choudhry. Most of the other judges ousted after Musharraf’s November 2007 emergency have since been reinstated after taking fresh oath of office.

The country was bracing for a lawyers’ ‘long march’ to restore Choudhry, scheduled to kick off on Mar. 12 and ending with a sit-in or ‘dharna’ in Islamabad. The PML-N has enthusiastically supported the move.

Ayaz Amir, who has warned against making the restoration of Choudhry the “be all and end all” of politics, told IPS he felt his PML-N party had “stuck its horns too much into this one issue”.

The planned long march, Amir predicted, ”will get more momentum now, but it won’t restore the judges. There will be more instability and tumult, with politicians being further discredited in the public eye”.

More ominously, widespread unrest could also leave the army with “no choice” but to step in – something it is, at this point, clearly reluctant to do.

Amir hopes it will not come to that. “We’re not at that point yet. We have to wait and see what happens when the situation plays itself out.”

Bitter political acrimony is not new in Pakistan. However, so far both the PPP and PML-N have kept their main shared goal before them -to keep the army out of politics and let the political process continue. Observers hope that this long view will prevail.

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