Jemima Khan in Islamabad: The politics of paranoia

After the killing of Benazir Bhutto and two deadly suicide attacks at the weekend, today's elections in Pakistan will take place in an atmosphere of fear and repression. Jemima Khan reports from Islamabad

Monday 18 February 2008 01:00

Pakistani elections are excellent value for the spectator. There are the huge, colourful jalsas (rallies) providing free entertainment; the raucous but generally good-humoured demonstrations at which effigy-burning is a staple; the slanderous mud-slinging between candidates who will soon be making expedient last-minute deals with each other; and the endless titillating conspiracy theories.

As the wife and constant Achilles' heel of a hapless former contestant, I, too, have been in the line of fire. In 2002, I was apparently a Rushdie-loving apostate after admitting I had read his novel Shame. The previous time, I was a Zionist conspirator with a £40m election budget provided by my (half) Jewish father to further the cause of Israel. Yet the fact that Pakistan has become a nation of conspiracy theorists is hardly surprising, given the decades of fraudulent and mendacious politics.

Despite low voter turnouts, Pakistanis have always been highly politicised. Everyone from the rickshaw driver to the phal wallah (fruit seller) has an opinion and a well-rehearsed rant. And of course, the conspiracy theorists have had plenty to chew on since the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December. "Benazir's husband, Zardari, gained most from her death," confides my driver on the way back from the airport.

This version is vehemently disputed later in the day by a shopkeeper and ardent PPP (Pakistan People's Party) supporter, who tells me, with the definitive authority of an insider, that "Musharraf killed Shaheed BB because she refused to do a deal".

Over dinner, I'm then soberly informed that "extremist elements were certainly responsible" by a civil servant. A fourth theory is proffered the next night: "Most probably the ISI [the inter-services intelligence agency] facilitated the terrorists," concludes a family friend as everyone at the table solemnly nods.

And on how she died, there are still more conflicting theories – "There was a bullet wound to her head. Sherry Rehman's best friend told my friend that she bathed her dead body and saw it with her own eyes. It's a big government cover-up." "Nothing doing," counters a relative of my ex-husband in the police force. "It was the explosion that fractured her skull and killed her." And so on.


This is my third consecutive election campaign in Pakistan. This time, I'm here only as an ex-wife and an observer. And, I suppose, as a bit of an irritant to the establishment, as in recent months, since the imposition of "the state of emergency" on 3 November (a military euphemism for a complete break with the constitution) and the subsequent arrest of the father of my children, I have attended a number of protests in London – most recently outside Downing Street to greet Pervez Musharraf on his way for lunch and a conflab with Gordon Brown. (He waved at us from his bullet-proof Mercedes.)

But the conspiracy theories and dining-room debates in Pakistan are all gratifyingly familiar. "I don't like any. They're all bad," followed by a shrug, is the most common response to my question about who people will vote for. Everything else about this election feels different, though. For a start, there's hardly any campaigning. Were it not for the banners and the party posters depicting Bollywood-style photos of shiny, smiling, big-haired candidates, you wouldn't know an election was about to happen. Campaigning is taking place largely in the media.

Above all, there is a palpable sense of fear. Pakistan used to be a country that looked frightening from the outside but felt safe when you were there. That has changed. Even in the clean, green capital, Islamabad (which, as the joke goes, is situated 10 miles from Pakistan), people are more reluctant to venture into public places.

The military operation against the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in July, in which more than 1,000 madrassa students and sympathisers were killed, including women and children, brought the battle against extremism uncomfortably close to home for diplomats and the air-conditioned elite. And Benazir Bhutto's assassination, and the ensuing riots, had an even greater impact on the prevailing sense of insecurity. There were 56 terrorist acts last year compared with six in 2006.

In a country with a literacy rate of just under 30 per cent, going out to talk directly to the masses is vital – which was the reason why Benazir continued publicly to address her supporters. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a bearded mullah (and leader of the opposition in the last Assembly) is so anxious that he has resorted to addressing his rallies by telephone. He is now a prime target, as it transpired that he had been secretly making deals with Musharraf.

My ex-husband, Imran Khan, a vocal critic of Musharraf, who has already been arrested and then released, has now been banned from entering Sindh province – and he's not even contesting elections, as he's part of the coalition of 27 parties that has boycotted them. On the streets widespread disillusionment is expected to result in a turnout of just 30 per cent – the lowest in Pakistan's history.


In the absence of a neutral election commissioner, caretaker government and judiciary, as well as restrictions on the media, elections are unlikely to be as "free and fair" as Musharraf would have his friends in the West believe. The President's own election is legally dubious. He dismissed and imprisoned 60 per cent of the Superior Court judges in anticipation of their ruling against his re-election. He replaced them with more pliant types.

Many candidates have been unlawfully eliminated, including Nawaz Sharif, PML-N, or Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and his brother, the ex-chief minister of Punjab, Shabaz, who both had their nomination papers rejected. There is controversy about every aspect of the electoral process.

This time, to pre-empt charges of rigging, the votes will be counted and the results announced at each polling station, as opposed to being sent to a central office. That hasn't stopped people from commenting that the only transparent thing about these elections is the new ballot boxes, imported from China. Rigging (of the old-fashioned kind; ballot box stuffing, etc) is expected, especially in areas that are less accessible to international observers, and in the women's booths, which are less busy.

But I sense a shift in people's attitudes. It seems that the recent anti-Musharraf protests since November have emboldened even the middle classes. This has led to fears that there will be Kenya-style riots if the PML-Q – which, according to polls, only has support of 12-14 per cent – wins. Musharraf has pledged that if the parties opposing him win a majority, he will resign. So this election is a referendum on Musharraf; 75 per cent of Pakistanis want him to resign immediately and only 8 per cent believe he is the right leader.

For most, the primary concerns are food inflation (at 12 per cent), unemployment, shortages of wheat, petrol and electricity. However, many in Pakistan also view Musharraf as a lightning rod for Islamist terrorism. In the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, what began as a fight against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban is becoming a Pashtun uprising against the army. And the majority sympathy is with the Pashtuns.


The reality is that Musharraf needs the extremists. And the extremists need Musharraf – an unpopular dictator – to give them something to rally against. The great fear in the West is the doomsday scenario of nukes falling into the hands of a Pakistani Taliban; a fear that Musharraf has consistently exploited to his advantage.

Despite his claims, the most likely outcome of this election will be once again be a moderate, if corrupt, government. The religious parties, strengthened at the last election, have proved to be as corrupt and inept as the rest and are expected to have their previous vote halved.

Equally, support for al-Qa'ida, Bin Laden and the Taliban all dropped sharply. Only 1 per cent of voters, according to one of last week's polls, would, if it were running, cast their ballots in favour of al-Qa'ida. The Taliban would get just 3 per cent.

The likely winners, boosted by the "martyr factor", are likely to be the PPP, followed by the party led by ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N. There will have to be some uncomfortable but expedient alliances between sworn enemies. Sharif jailed Zardari. Musharraf jailed and exiled Sharif, Musharraf jailed Zardari, Zardari's wife jailed Sharif's father. Sharif brought corruption charges against Zardari's wife after she brought charges against him. And so on. It would be amusing to see this group all wrangling with each other for power, if only the consequences were not so dire.

The possible candidates for prime minister resemble a police line-up. Benazir's party, inherited from her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, will be led either by Amin Makdoum Fahim or, more controversially, by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari. After his wife's wishes (though this has been disputed in Pakistan), he was made chairman of the party until his 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto (*ée Zardari; he changed his name to legitimise his inheritance) is old enough to take over. Zardari has been barred from contesting elections, but he has not ruled himself out as prime minister. He earned the nickname "Mr Ten Per Cent" because of allegations that he siphoned off state funds and took kickbacks during his wife's first term in office. Upgraded to "Mr Fifty Per Cent!" during her second term, he is believed to have looted up to $1.5bn from the Treasury. He is now appealing against a money-laundering conviction by a Swiss court and faces a separate inquiry in Britain. He was also accused of complicity in the murder of his brother-in-law, Murtaza Bhutto. The consensus in the party seems to be that Zardari was to blame for his wife's transgressions; his rule may well lead to the disintegration of the PPP as the true horror of succession sinks in.

Then there is Nawaz Sharif, who has also said he will lead PML-N if it wins. Twice dismissed on corruption charges, during his last term he proposed a 15th amendment to the constitution that would have made him Amir ul Momineen (leader of the faithful) – a constitutional dictator in the name of sharia law. He, too, has been guilty of political intimidation and dishonesty, but has been adept at capitalising on popular grief. In Punjab, there seems to be genuine affection for him.

And I can confess to my own grievance; he tried to have me jailed on politically motivated charges of smuggling – a non-bailable offence – in 1999. I suspect it was to intimidate my ex-husband. I returned six months later, (thanks to Musharraf) and the charges against me were dropped.

I have nothing personal against Choudhry Pervez Elahi, a staunch ally of the President and leader of the government-backed PML-Q. But he is equally tarnished by accusations of corruption. He and his cousin Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain have, say local media, made millions out of their close relationship with Musharraf.

The most depressing fact about this election for many is that it is the same old crop of tried, tested and failed politicians on offer. In rural Sindh and southern Punjab, feudal landlords have always dominated politics and the educated middle class remain excluded. It is this system that fails to allow new leaders to emerge, not the lack of viable alternatives.

There's a consensus that another election will have to be held again soon and that this vote will exacerbate the problems. Pakistanis don't believe their vote can make any difference. Weak institutions (which suit the interests of the three main power structures – the military, the mullahs and the feudals), a very small middle class, and rising extremism are not promising ingredients for lasting democracy.

One positive, though, is that the demand for democracy appears to be stronger than ever. The most promising thing happening is that the judiciary has stood up to anyone in power, especially the military dictator.

Every Thursday, thousands of protesting lawyers take to the streets seeking reinstatement of the deposed judges and restoration of the constitution to its pre-3 November status. Their movement may well maintain its momentum after today.

To quote Churchill: "The future, though imminent, is obscure." But it is not entirely without hope – although only in the topsy-turvy world of Pakistani politics could the lawyers end up being the good guys.

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