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One Week After Bhutto Killing, Pakistan Delays Parliamentary Elections

StoryJanuary 03, 2008
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Pakistan’s parliamentary elections have now been officially delayed by six weeks. We discuss the latest with nuclear scientist and peace activist Pervez Hoodbhoy and NYU Professor Barnett Rubin. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Pakistan, parliamentary elections have now been officially delayed by six weeks. Chief Election Commissioner Qazi Mohammad Farooq announced Wednesday the elections originally scheduled for January 8 will take place February 18. Farooq said the violence and looting following the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination last week made it difficult to hold the elections as planned. He urged all political parties to accept the new date.

    QAZI MOHAMMAD FAROOQ: [translated] I assure all the political parties that the elections will be transparent in every way, and I appeal to the leaders of the parties to accept the new date in the national interest and to fully participate in the elections.

AMY GOODMAN: But Benazir Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party, has objected to the new date. Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s husband and the new co-chair of the party, spoke out against the government’s decision to postpone elections at a news conference on Wednesday. He called the ruling Pakistan Muslim League led by President Musharraf “a killer league.”

    ASIF ALI ZARDARI: [translated] We reached the conclusion that the Pakistan Muslim League is a killer league, and we would never let PML any way out to flee from elections.

AMY GOODMAN: President Musharraf announced in a televised address Wednesday he would deploy the army, as well as paramilitary soldiers, to ensure security until the elections are over.

    PRESIDENT PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: [translated] In order to ensure law and order and to have elections in a peaceful manner, the army and rangers have been deployed, and they will remain deployed until the elections, and afterwards also, so that those elements, whether they are political or militant elements, if they want to disturb the law and order, they should be dealt with very strictly and completely.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the latest from Pakistan, we’re joined on the phone from Karachi, Pakistan by the prominent nuclear scientist and peace activist Pervez Hoodbhoy. But here in studio in New York, we’re joined by leading commentator, analyst on Afghanistan and Pakistan, NYU, New York University Professor Barnett Rubin. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

On the ground, let’s start with Pervez Hoodbhoy. Talk about what’s happening in Pakistan now and your reaction to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: Well, the reaction to the assassination was very severe. There were demonstrations across the country. There’s rioting, there’s looting, burning. Life came to a stop, and it’s just now crawling back to normal. Today was normal. Yesterday was half-normal. Before that, it was completely paralyzed. There were demonstrations, all of which pointed to the government as being complicit in the murder of Benazir Bhutto.

And there was certainly a lot of things that the government did to implicate itself. For example, they came up with a lot of contradictory versions of how the assassination happened. First, they said that it was just a concussion that Benazir Bhutto had received. They denied gunshots being — guns being fired at her, when in fact there were witnesses who said that they had heard shots, and then there was a video that was taken by an amateur photographer which showed clearly a gunman pointing to her and her falling into her car, followed by a bomb blast. So the government has had to retract. It’s harmed its credibility. And there’s an enormous amount of confusion, because it’s changed its version of what’s happened several times now.

AMY GOODMAN: Barnett Rubin, the government’s complicity, Musharraf’s complicity?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, we don’t know yet. I’ll just — there are basically two hypotheses about who could be responsible for it, and they’re not mutually exclusive. One is, some of the organizations that are associated with al-Qaeda, which has its main headquarters in Pakistan — and just bear in mind that even though the al-Qaeda threat is manipulated to justify authoritarian and military rule in Pakistan, that does not mean that it does not exist, and Benazir Bhutto, herself, was talking about it quite a bit. And the second is the military or elements of the military.

And the reason I say those are not mutually exclusive is because, for decades, the Pakistan military used armed Islamic militants as part of their foreign policy strategy in Afghanistan, in Kashmir, and also their domestic policy against their opponents. But eventually, we have to hope that the truth will come out and we won’t be speculating. But in any case, I think what it shows is that the deadly combination — the policy of trying to support a military ruler in order to solve a problem of terrorist militant groups is destined for failure.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen now?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, first, the most important thing, if it’s possible, is for Pakistan to have reasonably fair elections. I would note that I think the reason that the political parties have opposed the postponement of the elections is because, even though they know it’s not possible to have free and fair elections under current circumstances, they don’t believe that’s why the government is postponing the elections, because they don’t think the government ever intended to have free and fair elections, and that this postponement will give them more time to organize their rigging.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, wasn’t Benazir Bhutto handing over something like a 160-page report to Patrick Kennedy and Arlen Specter, the senator and the congressman, the night that she was assassinated about rigged elections?

BARNETT RUBIN: That’s what I understand, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Pervez Hoodbhoy, do you know more about that?

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: No, I don’t. This is what I have read in the newspapers here, but it is quite possible, because rigging has been a part of the way Musharraf has functioned, the way he got the previous assemblies elected. And let’s face the fact that these elections, even if they had been held on January 8, they could not have been fair and free, because Musharraf was going to keep the top position for himself, and he was hoping that the parties would be so divided amongst themselves that he would be able to be the top dog, essentially, in Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Pervez Hoodbhoy, what was the deal that the US was pushing so hard in bringing Benazir Bhutto, pushing her to return to Pakistan?

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: The deal is — rather, was — that everybody realizes that Musharraf is extremely unpopular in Pakistan. Two-thirds of people want him out right now, and this is according to polls. Now, frankly, I’m surprised by those polls, because I’m still looking for that one-third which wants Musharraf. Around me, I can barely find maybe a person or two, but where is that one-third? It’s just not there. And I think that in this country, my personal assessment is that 90% of people want Musharraf out right now.

So, the deal was that they — that is, the Bush administration — wanted to give a civilian face to Pakistan’s military government, and Benazir Bhutto was very happy to oblige, because she had been out of it all for now almost a decade. And so, she found — so this was an opportunity for her to come back. And so, the deal was that the US would patch up things between Musharraf and Benazir, and Musharraf would be forced to drop the corruption cases that Benazir has been charged with in numerous countries, including Pakistan. And if that deal went through, then you would have both Benazir and Musharraf together fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: Barnett Rubin, your assessment right now? The US — we just read in headlines, after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the United States Bush administration coming under criticism for approving a nearly $500 million sale of eighteen Lockheed Martin fighter jets to Pakistan, the Pentagon quietly announcing the deal this week, just days after the assassination. The significance of the military relationship with Pakistan and Pakistan — Musharraf’s relationship with the jihadis and the Taliban?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, I couldn’t think of a more effective way to send exactly the wrong signal than to do that. Of course, the core strategy of the Pakistani military for decades has been to support or pretend to support the United States against whoever the United States identifies as the enemy, in order to get jet fighters and other equipment such as that, which it intends to use basically to defend itself, in the best case, against India, which have nothing to do with the fight against terrorism, which have everything to do with maintaining the military in power in Pakistan on the basis of its claim to defend the country against India. So, basically, the message that they’re sending is that our military relationship to shore up your power goes ahead, even if you try to cover up a political assassination, destroy the Supreme Court and rig an election.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and what about this area of Waziristan, of the frontier?

BARNETT RUBIN: Most reports that I have seen indicate that Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the core surviving leadership of al-Qaeda is somewhere in the federally administered tribal agencies of Pakistan, and they are protected both by their own people — that is, Arabs and other internationals — and also by this relatively new movement called the Taliban Movement of Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think should be done in this situation?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, there is no — you know, there’s no shortcut. The basic problem is that Pakistan has been misgoverned for so many years that you have a variety of armed and criminal organizations that have moved into many areas of society in the tribal agencies, that includes militants who have, of course, for many years been supported by the Pakistan government and previously by CIA, Saudi Arabia, China and others, as part of the stategy against the Soviets in Afghanistan and then by Pakistan against the Northern Alliance, and so on.

Now, the problem there — so it’s a general problem of governance in Pakistan. That’s why I say the elections are the most important first step. But then there’s a special problem of governance along the areas of the border, in that those areas are not part of the Pakistani administration, and therefore they provide a very convenient secret platform for organization of covert operations. And that’s why the military, despite the fact that the militants in those areas are now posing a threat to them, nonetheless have been rather indecisive and ambiguous about trying to go after them, because it is still part of their political strategy to use those militants.

AMY GOODMAN: And how the war in Iraq affected what’s going on in Pakistan today, you see it as the major security threat, even against the United States?

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, there — yes, it’s the most immediate one, potentially. But I would say the main thing the war in Iraq did was it provided a huge amount of evidence to everyone in the world who didn’t believe that the United States went into Afghanistan because of terrorism, because, of course, the United States said — and I think people in the United States support it for that reason — that it overthrew the Taliban regime because they had given refuge to al-Qaeda and to destroy the al-Qaeda infrastructure there. And most people around the world, or at least certainly all governments, accepted that as a legitimate reason for going to war at that time. However, of course, everyone knows that Iraq had nothing to do with it, and yet the US used it as an excuse to go after Iraq primarily, people think, because of its strategic position, because it had a government which was very nationalist and anti-US and had oil. And therefore, it makes it look like the whole — probably accurately — that the war on terror is actually being used as a slogan to legitimate some strategic goals that the administration and its supporters have been articulating long before September 11th.

AMY GOODMAN: Pervez Hoodbhoy, you’re perhaps the most well-known anti-nuclear activist, also nuclear physicist, in Pakistan. Pakistan, of course, has the nuclear bomb. What about that in this whole scenario?

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: Well, if you ask the government of Pakistan, they say there’s absolutely no danger at all, that all our nuclear weapons are completely safe, that after the A.Q. Khan episode in 2004, we’ve taken many steps to secure our nuclear arsenal. And they have indeed been sending a lot of their nuclear commanders and people and serving officers of the Strategic Plans Division, and that’s the division which actually commands and controls the nuclear weapons —- they’ve been sending them to Washington for training in safety of nuclear weapons. So they say there is absolutely no danger.

Well, I guess we’d all like to believe that. We hope it’s true. But then there are worrying things. And perhaps the most worrying thing is that the intelligence services and the army has been penetrated by the Islamic extremists, and there’s a fair amount of evidence to that effect. Some -—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Pervez Hoodbhoy, I thank you very much for being with us, speaking to us from Karachi, Pakistan. And also thank you to Barnett Rubin, Director of Studies, Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Thank you very much for joining us.

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