By : Beena Sarwar
Just over a year ago, Pakistan's all-powerful president and chief of
the army staff was firmly entrenched at the helm of affairs. He had
taken several steps to ensure his absolute power; the `corrupt'
politicians were in exile, and their parties were in disarray.
Indeed, analysts were predicting that Pervez Musharraf would remain
in power until 2015.
Three factors, occurring over a span of two years, changed this
course. First, former archrivals Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz
Sharif, both then in exile, joined hands in May 2006 to sign
a `Charter of Democracy', aimed at ousting the military from
Pakistani politics. Second, an increasingly independent judiciary
began taking on previously taboo issues, including the disappearances
that had taken place at the hand of the intelligence agencies since
Pakistan's alliance with the US in the `war on terror'. Third, dozens
of independent television channels, which had sprung up since 2002,
were covering events critically and energetically.
These three factors eventually converged when Gen Musharraf tried
to `suspend' Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March 2007, sparking
off the extraordinary lawyers' movement that had the general in its
crosshairs. The media's dogged coverage contributed to sustaining the
movement and sparking widespread public outrage. The political
parties remained in the background, but their activists formed the
bulk of the movement's street power, bearing the brunt of the arrests
`Civil society', much of which had supported Gen Musharraf's 1999
takeover (and which benefited from the `bankers' economy' set in
place since), now finally turned against him. The political space
wrested from March 2007 onwards expanded immeasurably with the
triumphant return of Benazir Bhutto on 18 October. Benazir had spent
the past few years lobbying the Western powers that were propping up
the Musharraf regime primarily the Americans to convince them
that the `war on terror' could not be won by military means alone.
President Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule on 3 November 2007
tipped the balance further against him. For once, civil society and
the political parties were in agreement: the dictator had to go.
Disagreement arose only regarding the methodology. The non-
politicians tended to adopt a purist view, and clamoured for
immediate change. Benazir, undoubtedly Pakistan's most prominent
politician, retained a pragmatic outlook, though berated at the time
by the idealists as unprincipled and opportunistic. Arguing that
political parties could not take on and win against military might
except through politics, she got Washington, DC to broker the much-
maligned deal that allowed her, and later Nawaz Sharif, to return to
Pakistan and participate in the forthcoming elections.
Benazir's return from exile electrified the political atmosphere.
Cynics attributed her obvious radiance to the realisation that she
was again close to power. Others saw it as stemming from an inner
sense of peace at being home and among her people once again. The
hope Benazir brought to the poor was palpable even after the bomb
blasts that killed around 150 on the day of her homecoming. Her
legendary courage surprised journalists and government agencies
alike, when she paid an unscheduled visit to the injured in hospital
the next morning. Benazir had clearly matured during the years of
exile, speaking of reconciliation rather then vengeance, for dialogue
and patience. She even wore an altered hairstyle, pulled back simply
and covered with her trademark white dupatta very different from
the high bouffant and haughty manner that had characterised her
Benazir's assassination on 27 December deprived Pakistan of its most
popular leader. Ironically, it also cleared the way for her
successors to prove that they, too, had matured over the past decade
not just Benazir's husband Asif Ali Zardari, but also her former
foe, Nawaz Sharif. Indeed, both seem to have learnt much from her.
Had she not convinced Sharif to participate in the elections that he
had been planning to boycott, Pakistan would not today be witnessing
this transition to democracy. Their parties joined together, along
with the secular Awami National Party, to form a comfortable majority
in the National Assembly a crucial factor in political stability.
Benazir had not given her husband a ticket for the elections,
preferring that he help her from the party platform. Zardari has thus
far confounded critics by sticking to the role assigned him as a
kingmaker rather than a king. His widely hailed nomination of Yusuf
Reza Gillani no `yes-man' as prime minister rather than Amin
Fahim, the man popularly seen as Benazir's choice, demonstrated his
pragmatism and refusal to succumb to emotional blackmail.
Perhaps Benazir's legacy is the fact that Pakistan is today poised to
move forward into a democratic future. Thus far, Zardari and Sharif
have made all the right moves, and displayed a statesmanship and
maturity that would have been unthinkable a year ago. One can hope
that the legacy and memory of Benazir Bhutto will keep them
together at least until Pakistan is on its way to democracy and