President Pervez Musharraf made a strange television broadcast last night to the Pakistan nation in the wake of the assassination a week ago of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Dressed in civilian clothes, as he now has to be, having retired from his army post, he looked far from confident.
But what was most surprising – at least initially – was the long-winded and painstaking way in which he spelled out details of the widespread riots, violence and damage to property that happened mostly in Sind, Bhutto’s home province, over the weekend.
“Daily wagers could not go to work,” he said. “The petrol pumps were set on fire due to which the public transport remained off roads and it was the general public which suffered….. rail engines and bogeys were torched, so much so that even the rail track was uprooted at some places.”
Also “jewelry and ammunition shops” had been targeted and “arsonists” had released prisoners from jails and destroyed election offices. Finally, “all the development work that was carried out there in the last few years has greatly suffered during those two days of violence.”
Then the reasons for the catalog of disaster became clear. They gave Musharraf an excuse for the Election Commission to delay a general election, which was due to be held next Tuesday, till February 18. The speech was also designed to try to justify deploying the army and paratroop forces “all over Pakistan to ensure that there is no violence during the elections.” Ominously, the forces would remain in place afterwards – doubtless to quell post-election protests.
That is not a very long delay and, initially, looks like a good compromise between mainstream political parties such as the Bhutto family’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that wanted no delay, and Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League (Q) that wanted longer. But some of the sympathy vote that will go to the PPP following Benazir Bhutto’s death may get dissipated in the next six weeks and, more importantly, there will be plenty of time for Musharraf, the army and other forces to gain control of election arrangements and rig voting to try to prevent the PPP leading a coalition government.
Meanwhile, a few more thoughts on the Bhutto dynasty that has been re-established since Bhutto’s death with the naming of her 19-year old Oxford undergraduate son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, as the PPP’s chairman, and his father Asif Ali Zardari as the caretaker co-chairman. This has not happened because there are no other capable politicians in the PPP – there certainly are, notably Aitzaz Hassan who I first met 20 years ago when he was leading lawyers’ protests against the military rule of the then-President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq.
Now a prominent lawyer (currently under house arrest), Hassan, and others like him, could easily lead the party and run an effective government. But none of them dare challenge the dynasty for fear that, if (when) they failed, they would be banished from the inner circle of leadership. Such courtiers’ and acolytes’ fears of exclusion help sustain dynasties everywhere.
Ironically assassinations, personal tragedies though they are, only enhance dynasties’ immortality because they raise the height of the pedestals on which the families perch and make it increasingly difficult for capable outsiders to take over, irrespective of the quality of the dynastic leadership.
“It is certainly not brilliance, foresight, erudition or heart, but rather the experience of living with violence – facing it and using it – that separates political families from the rest,” writes Dipankar Gupta, a leading Indian sociologist, in this morning’s Mail Today daily newspaper.
While Bilawal finishes his studies at Oxford, the party will be headed by Asif Zardari – a man aptly described by my colleague Jo Johnson in the Financial Times yesterday as “a roguish bon vivant whose reputation for corruption has been only partly offset by a sense that he has paid his dues during an eight-year spell in jail.”
Who would vote for such a man, one might ask. The answer, as we will surely see next month, is “millions” – in awe, memory and sympathy for the Bhutto name – even though Musharraf and his forces will try to divert the votes. That is when Pakistan could face serious social disorder because, if Musharraf overdoes the poll rigging, the PPP and other parties will organize massive and violent demonstrations that will be far more damaging than last weekend’s mayhem in Sind.