Thursday, 15 November 2007

"Bhutto isn't part of the opposition"

Maryam Abou-Zahab, researcher, Pakistan expert at the Paris Institute of Political Studies reacts to Musharraf’s call for fresh elections.

Monday, November 12, 2007

FRANCE 24: Pervez Musharraf has announced that elections could be scheduled for January, but then he added that the state of emergency will continue. Can free elections be held in these conditions?

Abou-Zahab: The situation evolves from day to day in Pakistan. Today, no one can say if elections will take place and under what conditions. One thing that’s for certain is that it would be difficult to organise elections during a state of emergency.

If the elections are to be free and credible, it’s imperative that all the parties and candidates are free to campaign and travel within the country. This isn’t the case right now. Most notably, Nawaz Sharif must be allowed to return to Pakistan. Finally, security needs to be guaranteed throughout the country.

FR24: What forces are at play?

AZ: There’s no easy answer to this question. The situation is changing constantly. Alliances have not yet been struck. Keep in mind that there aren’t homogenous political blocs in Pakistan, and negotiations are underway between most political parties, often in secret.

The religious parties, nationalist Pashtun parties, Bhutto’s party and Musharraf’s followers are all engaged in different negotiations for eventual alliances.

Contrary to appearances, Bhutto isn’t part of the opposition. She’s simply a figure who wants to govern. She has, unlike others, complete freedom to move around as she wishes. As a result, this spectacle that we’ve been watching for the last three days is a show because she, like Musharraf, needs to save face.

You have to understand that Bhutto cannot obtain an absolute majority, and that she will have to find partners to form a coalition. At the same time, the democratic religious parties are divided. Some are in negotiations with Bhutto and don’t support a revolt against Musharraf.

F24: What are Musharraf’s reasons for first declaring a state of emergency then calling for elections to remain on schedule in January?

AZ: Musharraf is already unpopular due to the situation in the country and economic problems facing the population. But he was further weakened after the state of emergency was declared. Musharraf is a strategist and he played the election card in order to get back into the game. However, other twists and turns are possible. We are in a period of absolute uncertainty.

Musharraf knows that his survival is assured thanks to American support. The United States has certainly criticised the state of emergency, but their position remains ambiguous. All the different American political players have been hot and cold during this crisis: President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, the State Department and former officials have staked out contradictory positions.

Musharraf knows that their biggest concern is the establishment of security and that their stated worries about the maintenance of democratic values is nothing other than a façade to seal the leaks in Musharraf’s system, which they count on.

FR24: How can the Pakistani people survive during this troubled period with both a state of emergency and political confrontation?

AZ: The population isn’t really affected by the state of emergency because their problems are deeper and more immediate: the difficulties of finding food, rising prices, inflation, unemployment and insecurity, etc.

Pakistanis are not mobilised to protest in the streets. They are, however, tired of the political leadership on all sides that cannot solve their problems.

But, contrary to many commonly held beliefs, the Pakistanis are not ready to sign up with religious extremists either.

The democratic religious parties have very weak electoral support, and the militant Islamists cannot attract much of a following. They aren’t a major risk today, and the large majority of Pakistanis aren’t responding to their message.

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