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Personality Cults and Pakistan's Elections Slouching Toward Islamabad

Slouching Toward Islamabad

by CHINA HAND

As the 40 day period of mourning comes to an end, nothing very good seems to have come out of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

Eager to capitalize on the outpouring of outrage in the aftermath of the assassination, the Pakistan People’s Party, led by her widower Asif Zardari, refuses to consider any reforms, procedures, or policies that might put time, distance, and cool reflection between it and the election.

Just the opposite, in fact.

The party is insistent on participating in what its own leaders call a rigged election on February 18.

Apparently, after reinventing itself as a dynastic artifact to be passed down inside the Bhutto family, the PPP has decided what Pakistan needs isn’t democracy. What Pakistan needs a quasi-religious cult of personality that will clothe a determined grasp for power with the trappings of a mass movement.

Rallying the faithful on January 28 in the PPP’s Sindh heartland, Zardari proclaimed the new orthodoxy. According to AAJ News:

The PPP co-chairman deliberated at length in a somber mood about Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and her wisdom, bravery, intuition, leadership, and her martyrdom. He said that Shaheed Benazir Bhutto had the intuition about her martyrdom and her judge is the history.

She has defeated the dictatorial and evil forces by laying down her life. Today, the people consider her as an angel and her politics as prayers. She raised the stature of politicians and forced even the dictator of the day to declare her a martyr.

"We consider her will as an order" announcing that the will would be the part of Shaheed Chairperson’s book and added that if our eyes are filled with tears than our hearts are filled with fire but we would transform our grief and sufferings into strength.

The PPP co-chairman also expressed his will to be buried in Garhi Khuda Bux with two pre-conditions including that he is martyred while struggling to accomplish the mission of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto or his life comes to an end while continuing with her mission for Pakistan.

He authorized all the party leaders, workers and the people of Pakistan to halt him and tell if he drifts away from the mission of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto adding that he would have no right to be buried in Garhi Khuda Bux if he drifts off from the mission.

He pointed out that rotten eggs in politics and these political Eskimos were talking of break up of the party because they don’t have the level of intellect to understand the depth of Bhutoism.

Let’s not forget Benazir’s anointed spiritual, political, and physical heirs:

The crowded porch where the PPP aspirants scrambled to draw as close to the telephone as possible echoed with slogans of ‘Jeay Bhutto’. Taking lead from the slogans, Zardari warned ‘the enemies’ to listen to the voice of the masses as proof of their defeat. "Benazir is alive," he said, adding he had vowed to fulfill the mission of Zulfikar and Benazir Bhutto while Bilawal Bhutto Zardari would complete the party mission.

The moment he mentioned Bilawal, the supporters broke into another spell of slogans chanting ‘Jeay Bilawal’.

The PPP wants to make sure this fervor is on display outside, and not just inside the polling places:

A cynic – and, yes, I am a cynic-would look at this and say that the PPP has knowingly created the expectations, doctrine, organization, mechanism – and intimidating sense of purpose–to trigger a national crisis if the election doesn’t deliver the majority that the PPP wants.

And, for the time being, it looks like the other players in Pakistan’s electoral drama are sitting back and letting it happen.

President Musharraf has apparently resigned himself to the fact that neither the PPP nor the PML-N is willing to enter into a pre-election alliance that will give his regime some popular legitimacy. He might have some master plan for manipulating the election, but politically he’s too discredited to have a voice in Pakistan’s political discourse. All he can do is buckle his seatbelt and hope he walks away from the crash when Pakistan hits the wall on February 18.

The seatbelt strategy is also all the United States has left. The PPP, intent on running as the more-Islamist-than-thou keeper of the sacred Bhutto flame and nothing else, is now ignoring the US except to push its futile and grandstanding demand for a UN commission to investigate the assassination.

Army Chief of Staff Kiyani, eager to demonstrate the army is ready to move into the post-Musharraf apolitical era, has ostentatiously distanced the army from involvement in Pakistan’s civil society and policing the elections themselves. Time will tell if, faced with the PPP’s potential to exploit the power vacuum at the polls, this was a wise decision or another one of the Pakistan military’s extensive list of boneheaded blunders.

So far, despite the de facto breakdown in the alliance of convenience between the PPP and the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif has not yet come up with a public political riposte to the PPP’s challenge.

Sharif’s problems are exacerbated by a weaker organization and smaller candidate list than the PPP, and the competition within Punjab from the unpopular but undoubtedly clout-heavy PML-Q.

His political stature also suffered when his brother engaged in a public, graceless, and fruitless flirtation with Musharraf concerning possible PML-N entry into a pre-election national unity government, presumably to pre-empt the PPP’s powerful electoral push for power on February 18.

Now, with the 40 day mourning period for Bhutto over and Zardari out on the campaign trail, it will be interesting to see how the Punjab, the PML-Q-and Nawaz Sharif-treat him. Zardari’s enemies might decide to take the gloves off to keep the PPP from staking its claim as Pakistan’s only truly national party and defining the PML-N and Q as insignificant rump parties even within their home provinces.

The only political figure who seems to have held on to his stature-and sense-is Imran Khan.

Beyond his charisma, craggy good looks, cricket-star hunkiness, international jet-set presence-and miniscule Pakistan Movement for Justice party-Khan feels, thinks, and says the right thing, recognizing Pakistan’s activist judiciary and not a Benazir Bhutto cult as the true heart of Pakistan’s democratic aspirations.

The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Khan during his trip to the United States and managed, through design, disinterest, and/or general obliviousness, to ignore the fact that Khan’s approach to a meaningful election and a healthy civil society in Pakistan is diametrically opposed not only to Musharraf’s, but to the PPP’s:

Khan said he came to challenge conventional wisdom in the US. His argument: An election in Pakistan could do more harm than good. Restoring an independent judiciary, rather than holding elections, should be the first goal. The US "should back the democratic process, by insisting on the reinstatement of the judges, rather than back any individual in an election," Khan said.

Good luck with that, Imran.

Perhaps, now that the mourning period is officially over, Pakistan can emerge from the nadir of navel-gazing, demoralization, panic, and delusion it appears to have fallen in.

Otherwise, the February 18 elections will not provide catharsis, purpose, or unity.
Instead, they will give birth to continued confusion, rancor, and suffering.

CHINA HAND edits the very interesting website China Matters.