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Although their politics is polls apart, there is one thing that Musharraf and Imran Khan have in common. Both have more support abroad than within Pakistan . Pakistani expatriates, often disturbed by the poverty, lacking social welfare infrastructure and corruption they find on annual trips home, come back pining for “radical change,” a familiar refrain of Imran Khan’s support base. It was this yearning for radical change in fact that led many overseas Pakistanis to initially back Musharraf’s military coup against Nawaz Sharif’s elected government in October 1999.
To be honest, by late 1999, Nawaz Sharif had alienated most of his voters, in spite of the fact that in February 1997 he had swept the polls with a formidable majority. Draconian press controls, a dollar freeze that led the rupee to tumble, constant changing of army chiefs and a desire to become the ameer ul momineen (ruler of the faithful) which smacked more of an archaic kingship than a modern day democracy led few to shed tears for Nawaz Sharif when Musharraf announced a coup in mid-air and took over the reins of power.
Nevertheless, it was during the eight years of Musharraf’s military rule that Pakistanis realized the importance of well-functioning democratic institutions and the rule of law. A courageous two-year lawyers’ movement led to the restoration of a judiciary that now works independent of pressure from the executive and legislature. A vibrant and free press, initially supported by Musharraf’s government, was thwarted when it criticized the ruling regime. But the media, like the lawyers, refused to comply with unreasonable restrictions and fought for their freedom. Most importantly, for the first time in Pakistan ’s history, the military was openly blamed for the ills of society. A new and fresh transparency within Pakistan led many to conclude that democracy, with all its ills, is the best alternative and that in order to benefit from it fully Pakistanis would have to develop mechanisms to hold their leaders accountable. Thus, reform-minded Pakistanis have focused their energies on attaining an independent judiciary, a free press and a neutral army.
Yet, overseas Pakistanis, often unaware of how rapidly democratic institutions are evolving within Pakistan and how quickly the politics is maturing, are still searching for one-man saviours. A newly-formed London-based group called the “lovers of Musharraf” is looking to re-launch the retired general into politics. Comprising mostly of well-connected businessmen who had financially benefited from investing in real estate and the stock market during Musharraf’s time and are entirely unaware of the large sections of society who never saw the trickle down effect of his economic policies, not to mention the looming charges of treason against Musharraf for imposing a second martial law on November 3, 2007, think that Musharraf was the best thing that ever happened to Pakistan and must be brought back into power.
On the other end of the spectrum, are the Imran Khan supporters. For them, nothing in Pakistan has ever gone right. In spite of the fact that in a recent poll eighty percent of the country is supporting the military in its fight against the Taliban, the Imran Khan supporters continue to refer to it as “ America ’s war” and Mr. Khan insists that the Pakistani army is playing a mercenary role. His supporters deride the VIP culture of the politicians in power and constantly blame the west generally, and America in particular, for propping up corrupt leadership that does not think in the national interest because their own assets and children are abroad. Conveniently, they overlook the fact that Mr. Khan’s own children are also abroad and are, in all likelihood, being funded by assets abroad, even if those assets do not belong to Mr. Khan himself.
Within Pakistan however most potential voters are looking to the mainstream political parties to reinvent themselves. In addition to an assertive judiciary and vigilant press, several politically active pressure groups are organizing for change and yielding positive results. A few days ago, for the first time in Pakistan ’s history and owing to the efforts of some dedicated activists, a feudal lord, who had illegally appropriated village land, was forced to return it to its rightful owners, the Kashkeli peasants. In other news, President Zardari’s handpicked nominee for the Ambassador to Paris post was collectively rejected by the Foreign Office and several retired ambassadors. Since the members of the Foreign Service refused to accept the President’s choice, the Prime Minister intervened and reversed the President’s decision.
The Prime Minister, Yousaf Reza Gillani, is slowly but surely asserting himself. A conciliatory personality and not a beneficiary of the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance that has pardoned other allegedly corrupt politicians (including President Zardari), Prime Minister Gillani is trying to be responsive to the critiques of the press and the needs of the people. In a recent interview, he declared that he wanted to make appointments based on merit, and not on the liking of any one individual, hinting at President Zardari’s nepotistic style. Gillani also spoke out against a recent law initiated by President Zardari’s cronies that sought to punish those who poked fun at Zardari through text messages and emails. If there is one thing that can bring a government down in Pakistan , it is restricting free speech. It contributed to both Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf’s downfall. The late Benazir Bhutto never attempted to curb freedom of expression and yet President Zardari is slow to learn, but Gillani is an older hand at politics and were he to assert himself further, he would find support from many corners.
Neither is the close scrutiny of the public representatives limited to those in government. The opposition has also felt the heat lately, as one prominent Pakistani recently confided to me, “It has become very difficult to be a politician in Pakistan .” Four members of Nawaz Sharif’s party have recently been the subject of public disdain and there is considerable pressure on Mr. Sharif to expel them from his party. One of his party members has been accused of rape, another of harassing customs officials, and a third, a female member of the national assembly, has been caught on CCTV buying jewellery on a stolen credit card. While previously the rich and powerful could get away with much in Pakistan . Things are different today. With a media able and willing to disgrace and a judiciary with a mind of its own, the threat of accountability is far more real than it used to be.
The future of Pakistan ’s politics thus belongs to men and women from the mainstream political parties who are able to distinguish themselves from their colleagues and demonstrate that they really have the people’s interests at heart. It does not belong to fringe politicians like Musharraf and Imran Khan, both of whom claim to represent the silent majority but cannot prove it at the polls.
The writer is a London-based lawyer turned political commentator. Website: www.ayeshaijazkhan.com