Response to Ghazala Minallah’s letter to Benazir Bhutto

By Wasiq Ali
December 4, 2007

This piece appeared on Watandost blog on December 4, 2007.

Dear Civil Society colleagues,

I have been reading the emotional e-mails and blog postings by some of you (most notably Ghazala MinAllah’s open Letter to Benazir Bhutto) demanding that Pakistan’s political parties, especially PPP, follow non-political civil society organizations in demanding restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other members of the unlawfully removed judiciary over nd above all else.

There is also clamour that elections should be boycotted until judges are restored to their offices.

Civil society is fresh from its success of getting Justice Chaudhry restored a few months ago. But then
the mechanism of restoration was street protests (backed by opposition parties) and a successful appeal
to the Supreme Court itself. What mechanism do people have in mind this time? To think that General
Musharraf will roll up his bed and go home after our demonstrations and the flurry of emails is a mistake.

He could hand over power to another General, which won’t solve Pakistan’s rule of law problem.

It is time we take a long, hard look at our relationship with political parties and put our weight
behind them rather than making the unrealistic demand that they follow us. The goal remains the same
–restoration of the judiciary and supremacy of the constitution–but the “trashing the mainstream
parties” approach should give way to respecting their weight and sacrifices, too.

Aitzaz Ahsan, a PPP candidate for the National Assembly again, would most likely agree with me.

There is a long history of suspicion and criticism of the PPP by civil society organizations and admittedly
Pakistan’s politicians and parties are far from perfect. But let us face it, in the real world civil
society assists political parties. It is not a substitute for them.

Wherever civil society has erroneously convinced itself that it can operate against or independent of
politics, the establishment has thrived. Take the example of Egypt, which has more NGOs per capita than any other country. These NGOs denigrated Egypt’s mainstream political parties in the 1980s and 1990s just as we are running down the PPP nowadays. The result is the entrenchment of Hosni Mubarak’s Mukhabarat (Intelligence agencies) dictatorship.

Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto has been unequivocal in her support for the judiciary and there is no need to
launch into long letters based on a single sentence here or there. She is a politician and must deal with
multiple constituencies and demands, unlike most of us who have no compulsions. Our personal worst case scenario is that our next blog posting would be hacked. Ms Bhutto, her family and her party have paid a heavy price for confronting Pakistan’s military and intelligence machinery. Their flaws and faults aside, there is no denying they have fought and borne the brunt of the repression of the Zia and Musharraf dictatorships.

Benazir Bhutto is on record as saying “Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary is our Chief Justice.” Why do we
not proceed on that statement and seek its reiteration instead of attacking Mohtarma?

The problem is that civil society has a strong non-political component whereas Ms Bhutto is a
political leader. A politician must weigh all options. What if a polls boycott fails and, like 1985, the new
assembly becomes operational without any real opposition? Then civil society would be easily
smashed. Also, an election campaign can help mobilize masses (as it did in 1977) and become the forerunner of a bigger protest movement against polls rigging. Imran Khan and some of his supporters are wrongly assuming that Benazir Bhutto’s concern in not limiting themselves to the judiciary demand relates to NRO.

Having shouted at the top of their voices for a decade about the cases these people really believe that is
Benazir Bhutto’s real problem. It is not. Spain has already dismissed the case on grounds of inadequate
evidence. The Swiss case is in its death throes. The  London case is being quashed by the Appeals Court and the Pakistani cases will get nowhere given that they got nowhere in eleven years. So silly suggestions like “If we reassure Mohtarma that we will end the cases to get her to boycott the elections then maybe PPP will boycott” are based on a wrong premise.

Those who have never contested, lost or won an election do not understand the dynamic of elections.
Especially in rural areas it is very difficult to stop people from voting. An election is one occasion when
the poor get attention from the candidates. They do not want to miss this opportunity.

Even now, a boycott would be successful only in Lahore, Peshawar and possibly Rawalpindi-Islamabad.
The Chaudhries will ensure a high turnout in Gujranwala division. Southern Punjab will turn out to
vote for the traditional leaders and MQM will get the vote out in Sindh’s large cities like Karachi,
Hyderabad and Sukkur. If PPP boycotts, there might be low turnout in rural Sindh but who will be there to see it? Poor Balochistan seldom counts in electoral arithmetic.

The result of a boycott would be a two-thirds majority for Musharraf’s PML-Q, which would then do whatever it pleases wih the constitution.

In 1985, Ziaul Haq used smaller parties in MRD to pressure Benazir Bhutto into boycotting the non-party polls. All those advocating the boycott later turned out to be ISI’s people. (Read accounts of that
election in books by General K.M. Arif and others).

In principle, it sounds very logical to argue “We will not legitimize the election” by participating. In
practice, let us go through the mechanism of what might happen. Elections take place, are boycotted by
the opposition, result in a four-fifths “win” for PML-Q and JUI.

Then what? Street protests against the illegitimate assemblies? Who will ensure these protests will be big enough to make a difference? Assuming the protests are very large and sufficient to force Musharraf’s hand, what would be the next step? Resignation and handing over power to the army chief? Is that what we want or need?

Let us give the politicians, especially Benazir Bhutto, credit in figuring out how to work out a
political formula of participating in elections under protest and then using the polls campaign as a
springboard for a methodical protest campaign.

Let us remember that civil society is very important but it is never a substitute for political parties. If
international pressure makes the polls freer, the opposition can win and force Musharraf’s hand. If the
election is rigged, a wider anti-rigging campaign can be launched with the involvement of the poor voters who will feel cheated. In either case, Musharraf will have to talk to the opposition and an alternative way for his exit can be found than another military intervention.

As for the judiciary, civil society should focus on getting an unequivocal commitment from the political
parties that they will restore the pre-November 3 judiciary upon being elected. And make the judiciary
issue part of the polls campaign, alongside economic and other issues, instead of insisting that it be
considered a separate matter from the country’s overall politics.

I know my view runs contrary to the sentiment of most civil society activists but I request that it be given careful consideration. After all, I am one of you and am not part of the Pakistani political system.

Wasiq Ali


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