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After Bhutto’s Murder: A Way Forward for Pakistan
After Bhutto’s Murder: A Way Forward for Pakistan
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 74 / Asia

After Bhutto’s Murder: A Way Forward for Pakistan

Gravely damaged by eight years of military rule, Pakistan’s fragile political system received a major blow on 27 December 2007, when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.

I. Overview

Gravely damaged by eight years of military rule, Pakistan’s fragile political system received a major blow on 27 December 2007, when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Her murder, days before the parliamentary elections scheduled for 8 January 2008 and now postponed to 18 February, put an end to a U.S. effort to broker a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf which the centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader had already recognised was unrealistic. Her popularity and the belief Musharraf and his allies were responsible, directly or indirectly, have led to violent countrywide protests.

Stability in Pakistan and its contribution to wider anti-terror efforts now require rapid transition to legitimate civilian government. This must involve the departure of Musharraf, whose continued efforts to retain power at all costs are incompatible with national reconciliation; an interim consensus caretaker government and a neutral Election Commission; and brief postponement of the elections to allow conditions to be created – including the restoration of judicial independence – in which they can be conducted freely and fairly. 

Bhutto’s death has drawn the battle lines even more clearly between Musharraf’s military-backed regime and Pakistan’s moderate majority, which is now unlikely to settle for anything less than genuine parliamentary democracy. Many in Pakistan fear that the federation’s very survival could depend on the outcome of this struggle.

Belying his reiterated slogan of “Pakistan first”, Musharraf is placing regime survival and his personal political fortune first, just as he did in November. That month he imposed martial law, suspended the constitution, imprisoned thousands of lawyers and politicians and sacked the judiciary with the sole objective of preventing the Supreme Court from challenging the legitimacy of his re-election as president by a lame-duck and stacked Electoral College. 

Musharraf gave up his position of Army Chief on 28 November under U.S. pressure, but the legitimacy of his presidential election remains contested. He withdrew martial law formally on 15 December, ending the emergency and reviving the constitution. At the same time, however, he not only did not restore the dismissed judges or void the repressive decrees he had issued but also unilaterally and without any legal basis proclaimed amendments to the constitution purporting to deny the courts and the parliament their constitutional prerogatives to challenge his changes.

Bhutto’s PPP and the centre-right Muslim League (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had reluctantly agreed to participate in the 8 January elections, motivated primarily by the desire to expose Musharraf’s intention to rig the vote. Stacked courts, partial caretaker governments, a subservient Election Commission, the gagging of the media, curbs on political party mobilisation and association and the actions of the security agencies all undermined the essential conditions for free and fair elections.

The regime’s international backers, particularly the U.S., continue to give signs of wanting to retain Musharraf in the presidency in the belief that he and the military (his sole support base) are the only guarantors of stability in a crucial country. But after Bhutto’s murder, and with the extent of popular anger now evident, elections that are not seen as free and fair would have disastrous consequences. The person of Musharraf has become so unpopular that his continuation in a position of power guarantees increasing domestic turmoil. By continuing to back him, Western governments might not just lose the battle for Pakistani hearts and minds, but could also be faced with the nightmare prospect of a nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority country of 165 million descending into violent internal conflict from which only extremist forces would stand to gain.

Bhutto’s party will survive her demise, and will, should her successors act wisely, remain a force for moderation and stability in Pakistan. Sharif’s party has vowed to work with the PPP to restore democracy, peace and stability in the country. The U.S. and its Western allies must recognise that Musharraf is not only not indispensable, but he is now a serious liability. Instead of backing a deeply unpopular authoritarian ruler who is seen as complicit in the death of Pakistan’s most popular politician, they must instead support democratic institutions and the people of Pakistan. It is time that the West acknowledges that only a legitimate elected government, led by one of the moderate parties, would have the authority and the popular backing to return Pakistan to its moderate democratic moorings.

In summary, the policy outcomes that need to happen over the next two months, and which should be strongly and consistently supported by the international community, and particularly those like the U.S. most capable of influencing them, are:

  • Musharraf’s resignation, with Senate Chairman Mohammadmian Soomro taking over under the constitution as acting president and appointing neutral caretaker governments at the national and provincial levels with the consensus of the major political parties in all four federal units;
     
  • postponement of the polls, accompanied with the announcement of an early new election date. The Election Commission announced on 2 January a postponement until 18 February. This is reasonable in and of itself but it said nothing about the other crucial changes discussed in this Briefing and which are needed if this step is to contribute to restoration of democracy in Pakistan;
     
  • full restoration of the constitution, including an independent judiciary and constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association and safeguards against illegal arrest and detention;
     
  • reconstitution of the Election Commission of Pakistan, with the consensus of all major political parties; and
     
  • the transfer of power and legitimate authority to elected civilian hands.

Islamabad/Brussels, 2 January 2008

Commentary / Asia

Pakistan: Challenges of a Weak Democracy

The new government of Imran Khan is repressing opposition voices and yielding to parties propagating sectarianism. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to help Pakistan abide by its international commitments and keep supporting democratic governance.

On 30 October 2018, after Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Christian woman, Aasia Masih (also known as Aasia Bibi) on blasphemy charges, a hardline Islamist party, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent demonstrations countrywide demanding the verdict’s reversal. The protests ended after Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government offered immunity to Labaik’s leadership and violent activists and permitted the movement to submit a review petition calling on the court to reinstate Bibi’s death penalty. The government’s actions appeared to relent to a group that propagates sectarian hatred and threatens the lives of religious and other minorities. Meanwhile, the military-sponsored “mainstreaming” of anti-India jihadists (notably the Laskhar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa), which permits such groups to rebrand and enter politics without renouncing militancy, risks further fuelling intolerance and sectarianism. Mainstreaming could also entail international sanction, given that it contravenes Pakistan’s counter-terrorism commitments. Yet another challenge lies in persistent political tensions: having come to power after contested elections in July 2018, Khan’s government thus far has done little to bridge divisions between it and opposition parties. The government has targeted opposition leaders in politicised corruption trials, while security forces’ have cracked down on dissenting voices within civil society and the media.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Leverage Pakistan’s sensitivity to its international standing and aversion to isolation, urge Pakistan to prosecute Labaik leaders and activists, through fair trials and with due process, for threatening judges and public officials, attacking police and citizens, and destroying public and private properties during the November 2018 protests; at the same time, call for parliament to enact legislation to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws that threaten the security of marginalised communities;
     
  • Also call on the government to implement existing and enact additional laws that meet international human rights standards to ban jihadists from fundraising, recruiting, and conducting attacks within the country and in the region;
     
  • Continue to support democratic governance and the rule of law in Pakistan, including calling for due process in prosecution of cases against the opposition and press the government to protect individual freedoms. Warn Islamabad that its failure to respect freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Rising Religious Intolerance and Violence

On 31 October 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted and ordered the release of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in November 2010. In response, religious groups, spearheaded by Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan, the political front of the Sunni Barelvi Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent protests countrywide, attacking police officers and citizens and destroying public and private property. By invoking highly-provocative claims of blasphemy, the several thousand Labaik protesters gained the support of many conservative Muslims. Holding “Hang Aasia Bibi” rallies, Labaik leaders accused Supreme Court judges of blasphemy, called for their assassination, and urged soldiers to mutiny against army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose religious faith they questioned. On 2 November, Imran Khan’s government struck a deal with Labaik. Arguing that to do otherwise would lead to more violence, the government agreed not to take any action against Labaik leaders and supporters, releasing those responsible for inciting sectarian hatred and resorting to violence during the protests. It also agreed not to oppose a review petition to reinstate Bibi’s death sentence, to bar her from leaving the country until the Supreme Court has reached a decision on that petition, and to release those responsible for violence during the protests. Though the government may have faced a short-term dilemma in looking for a way to defuse the protests and avoid provoking wider unrest, the tensions provoked by intolerant and sectarian groups like Labaik is a problem of Pakistani authorities’ own making over decades, one that is reinforced, not lessened, by a pattern of capitulation to such groups.

Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death [in Pakistan], and those defending the innocent [...] have often been silenced.

Emboldened by the government’s backing down, Labaik threatened another protest on 24 November. The government, fearing more violence, quickly placed the group’s leaders and hundreds of activists under preventive detention. Although cases have been filed, including in anti-terrorism courts against Labaik’s top leadership, those men are still awaiting prosecution. The outcome of these cases is uncertain, but in similar instances in the past, the filing of charges has not led to prosecution, once immediate pressures are relieved and public attention wanes. Bibi, though freed by the courts, remains in hiding. Her case has fuelled the fears of religious minorities that the state cannot protect them if those responsible for inciting and using violence against their communities operate with impunity. Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death, and those defending the innocent, such as Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, killed by his guard in 2011 for supporting Aasia Bibi, have often been silenced.

Labaik’s emergence and growing influence is closely tied to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services’ longstanding use of Islamists to challenge civilian rivals by supporting their forays into political life. Reportedly backed by the military to destabilise the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in November 2017, Labaik at that time accused the law minister of blasphemy and besieged Islamabad, attacking police officers and civilians. The siege ended after the military concluded a deal whereby the law minister resigned and the state gave Labaik leaders and activists immunity from criminal prosecution. In another bid to undermine the PML-N by cutting into its support base in the July 2018 election, Labaik created a political front to contest the vote even as it continued to encourage and deploy violence. Exploiting popular sentiment about blasphemy, Labaik won 2.2 million votes and emerged as the third-largest party in parliament after the PTI and PML-N. It now uses its newfound political legitimacy to raise funds, recruit and propagate a hardline sectarian agenda.

Militants Deepen their Political Clout

In addition to using Islamists to weaken other parties, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have also encouraged anti-India jihadists, including some designated by the UN Security Council as terrorist organisations, to enter politics. Most prominent is the now-rebranded Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD) – previously Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks – and its charity front, the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation. LeT/JD is included in the UN Security Council’s 1267 sanctions list. In June 2018, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) body that works to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, placed Pakistan on its “grey list” due to lax counter-terrorism financing laws and enforcement. Partly to avert FATF pressure, a presidential ordinance nominally banned LeT/JD and its charity front in February 2018. But the banned group was allowed to take part in the 2018 vote through yet another front, the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, though it failed to gain even a single seat. The presidential ordinance banning LeT/JD and its charity front has since lapsed.

In principle, encouraging militants to enter politics could help moderate them. In these circumstances, however, little suggests that will happen, given that the political participation of groups allied to the military is not conditioned on their abandoning violence or related recruitment and proselytising. Indeed, their rebranding and entry into politics appears to be a deliberate strategy to keep alive groups regarded as useful foreign policy proxies in the face of international pressure. The mainstreaming strategy, particularly as it pertains to groups on the 1267 list, poses risks for Pakistan at home and abroad. The failure to ban those groups and reform financing laws could see Pakistan listed on the FATF’s “blacklist” of “non-cooperative countries” next fall, with serious implications for the country’s reputation and economy. That failure also hinders any rapprochement with India: New Delhi refuses to resume bilateral dialogue with Islamabad, frozen since a 2016 attack attributed to Pakistan-based militants, until Pakistan takes decisive action against jihadists. For the region, the security risks inherent in the failure to demobilise such groups are grave: another major attack on India by Pakistan-based groups could bring the two nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war.

Crackdowns Heighten Political Turmoil

The military’s backing of the PTI and its alleged support for Khan’s government as it targets opponents fuel the political acrimony that already marked the July 2018 election. The two main opposition parties, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and former President Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), were denied an equal playing field amid reports, as noted in the EU election observation mission’s October report, “of interference in the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the active role of the judiciary in political affairs”.

Reportedly with military and judicial backing, the government is now pursuing the PML-N and PPP leadership through a legal process that is deeply partisan. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, now opposition leader in the federal legislature, have been indicted and imprisoned on corruption charges without due process; the government is also lodging corruption cases against the PPP leadership. Unless the government changes course, political turmoil could increase at a time when militant threats are still acute – over 200 people died in terror attacks during the election. The government would be better served by working with the parliamentary opposition to ban and prosecute groups that refuse to shun violence and that propagate sectarian hatred.

Engaging with Pakistan

The EU should push Pakistani authorities to take steps to ease political acrimony, protect minorities and stop militants entering politics without first renouncing violence. First, in line with its traditional emphasis on the rule of law, the EU should leverage Pakistan’s concerns about its international standing to urge the government to ensure due process in prosecuting cases against opposition leaders and thus help defuse political tensions. It should warn Islamabad that failure to meet its human rights obligations, particularly in respecting freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief, could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Second, the EU should press the Pakistan parliament to amend blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse. Aasia Bibi’s case is one of scores in which false accusations of blasphemy have placed innocent people, particularly from religious and ethnic minorities, on death row. The EU Council has repeatedly voiced concerns about the abuse of these laws, including in their most recent conclusions on Pakistan. Updating the legislation is even more important now as Labaik is exploiting the blasphemy issue to foment sectarian hatred among parts of Pakistani society.

Lastly, though the EU has called on Pakistan to work with the FATF to strengthen its counter-terrorism financial oversight regime, it should also highlight the importance of implementing existing or drafting new laws to prevent jihadists and other militants that refuse to abjure violence from operating under changed names. In its October report, the EU Election Observation Mission rightly expressed concern about the “the emergence of extremist parties with affiliations either to terrorist groups, or individuals linked to organisations that have used, incited or advocated violence”. So long as the state fails to take action against such groups, they will continue to fuel religious sectarianism and intolerance at home and threaten the security of Pakistan’s neighbours.