We speak with Nawaz Sharif, the deposed twice-elected Pakistani prime minister and onetime arch-rival of Benazir Bhutto. Sharif heads the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz Party and is now the leading opposition candidate in Pakistan following Bhutto’s assassination. Amy Goodman interviewed Sharif with Reverend Jesse Jackson Sunday on his Keep Hope Alive radio show. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Nawaz Sharif is the deposed twice-elected Pakistani prime minister and onetime arch-rival of Benazir Bhutto. He is now leading the opposition in Pakistan. He heads the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz Party.
Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both former prime ministers recently returned from exile, found common ground shortly after the imposition of martial law. They both presented themselves as defenders of democracy and planned to participate in the elections. Both had been dogged by corruption charges during their own time in power.
Sharif was forced from power in a coup d’etat led by General Pervez Musharraf in ’99. Although he was allowed to return to Pakistan last November after a long stay in Saudi Arabia, Sharif is still banned from running for Parliament or becoming prime minister. He does not recognize the ban and claims it’s illegitimate.
After Bhutto’s assassination on December 27th, Sharif decried the lack of security arrangements and blamed President Musharraf for her death.
I joined Reverend Jesse Jackson Sunday morning on his Keep Hope Alive radio show at Rockefeller Center to interview the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Reverend Jackson and I spoke to Nawaz Sharif while he was traveling in rural Pakistan.
REV. JESSE JACKSON: We were all so stunned by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Has there been any definitive determination yet as to what and who killed her?
NAWAZ SHARIF: Well, we’ve been longtime political rivals and also political allies. And we were campaigning in the same town near Islamabad the day she met this accident. And I, immediately after getting the news that she was being taken to the hospital, I suspended my election campaign, and I rushed to the hospital. And before I could get there, I got the news that she has died. It was very sad, one of the gloomiest days in the history of Pakistan. One feels very sorry.
And we both were struggling for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan, and we signed a Charter of Democracy two years ago and both were waging a struggle against dictatorship in Pakistan, for the restoration of rule of law, for the independence of judiciary and also democracy and freedom of press, because the press is gagged here. The judiciary is not independent. It’s been thrown out of office; as you know, Reverend, President Pervez Musharraf last month, he sacked the judiciary and placed them under house arrest. The Chief Justice of Pakistan is also under house arrest, even now. So this is very sad. And the Parliament is like a rubber stamp.
Pakistan actually is not moving towards a real democracy. These elections, one believes, will be something like the referendum which was held by Mr. Musharraf five years ago, which was massively rigged. And because Mr. Musharraf’s [inaudible] party does not have a vote bank, any vote bank in the country — it doesn’t exist anywhere — so it’s on only banking and relying on Mr. Musharraf’s election manipulation plans.
So we are fighting all this, because we stand for democracy, judiciary and rule of law, and the rights of — fundamental rights of the people of Pakistan, as you, of course, Reverend, you also are struggling for this noble cause, and you have a wonderful track record of fighting for these rights all your life. So we are trying to follow suit here in this country. And I’ve lost my partner, Benazir Bhutto. I’m very sad about it, but we will continue the struggle.
REV. JESSE JACKSON: Let me ask you a question, and then I want Amy to chime right in. Has your party and her party gotten any closer as a functional, functioning coalition since her death?
NAWAZ SHARIF: Yeah, we are in touch with each other. We have kept up the contact. And we are going ahead with the elections, although we have very serious apprehensions, as far as a manipulation, rigging is concerned, but we are going ahead, and we are in touch. We are coordinating with each other. We discussed the leadership of the People’s Party. Mr. Zardari, of course, is the one who is in charge now on the People’s Party side. And we believe that this cooperation and collaboration must increase after the elections, I believe.
REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, our sense is that, in that she has been killed, that the identifiable symbolic, as it were, head does not exist except for your head, and you are not on the ticket. Are you trying to get on the ticket to be able to run yourself?
NAWAZ SHARIF: Mr. Musharraf actually gave very clear instructions to the Chief Election Commissioner to reject my papers. [inaudible] my papers were accepted five years ago, when I was sitting in Saudi Arabia in exile, and this time those papers have been rejected. I don’t know what went wrong in these five years which has led to the rejection of my papers this time, though the Chief Election Commissioner is not independent; it is subservient to the President. It’s a handpicked chief election commissioner, although it is in the Constitution that the chief election commissioner must be appointed in consultation with all the political parties in our country. But he was handpicked by Mr. Musharraf, because he — Musharraf thought that he will be a very pliant chief election commissioner. So he rejected my papers. And I’ve been twice elected as prime minister of this country, twice the chief minister — you have governors in America, we have chief ministers here. So I don’t know what went wrong. And was their decision correct in 2002 when my papers were approved, or this position is correct? Either that was correct, or this is wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Nawaz Sharif, I wanted to ask you about something that happened right after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. It was the Pentagon quietly announcing that they were selling a number of nuclear-capable F-16s to Pakistan, to Musharraf. What is your view on that? Do you think that is the US once again shoring up the current president, the General, Musharraf?
NAWAZ SHARIF: I think the Bush administration has been supporting Mr. Musharraf ever since 9/11. The American administration was not supporting him before 9/11. You know how President Clinton treated Mr. Musharraf. He, when he came to Pakistan, President Clinton, he refused to publicly shake hands with this dictator, because he thought that he has not done the right thing. He subverted the Constitution, he subverted the law.
So, now, President Bush administration has been supporting him. And I think not only me, but I think the majority, overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan feel dismayed and disappointed at the Bush administration’s policy to support one man against the whole nation. And I think this is not a correct policy. This is one of the causes, unfortunately, which is giving rise to anti-American feelings in Pakistan.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you also, the US elections are taking place in this year. The campaign is on, and Barack Obama, who won the first primary, the Iowa Caucus, when asked about Pakistan, said, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” What do you think about that? He was talking about bombing Pakistan.
NAWAZ SHARIF: Well, I don’t know, frankly. I heard that statement some time ago. But I think Pakistan has good relations with the United States of America. We’ve always had relations in a very cordial manner ever since our independence. I think America, United States of America, must identify its friendship with the people of Pakistan, and not certain individuals. That is my very firm belief. We think that any such statements need to go avoided which create certain misunderstandings between the two nations.
REV. JESSE JACKSON: Mr. Sharif, is Musharraf still holding political prisoners? And if so, kind of who and how many?
NAWAZ SHARIF: I beg your pardon, Reverend?
REV. JESSE JACKSON: Is he still holding political prisoners? And if so, kind of who of note and how many?
NAWAZ SHARIF: Yeah, this is a big problem in this country. And despite the fact that these people have not committed any crime, they are put behind the bars. Now the lawyers’ community, the leaders of the lawyers’ community is under government custody. And Mr. Aitzaz Ahsan, who is the chairman of the lawyers’ community, he is now today under house arrest. The judges are under house arrest. I mean, we have never seen this kind of situation in our lifetimes; the last fifty years of Pakistan’s political history that I’ve been seeing, witnessing, I have never seen this kind of a situation. And the judiciary today, which — in the Supreme Court and also high courts, they’re all picked up by Mr. Musharraf after bringing his emergency measures. So this judiciary owes its allegiance not to the state, but to Mr. Musharraf. And nobody has any place to go to for the judicial office grievances. This is absolutely creating a lot of anger against the President of this country.
REV. JESSE JACKSON: Yeah, I want to — we’re going to take a break. I want you stay with us for a moment, if you don’t mind. But if he were to release those prisoners, would that be some opening for dialogue with him?
NAWAZ SHARIF: I stand for reconciliation. I want a national reconciliation. And I think, frankly, that in this national reconciliation, perhaps the only obstacle in this process of national reconciliation is Mr. Musharraf himself. I think he needs to think very seriously about himself, because he is the — he’s not part of any solution now in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan. He is part of the problem. I think he is being perceived to be the problem, the real problem now, so I think this needs to be addressed. But I am all for national reconciliation.
AMY GOODMAN: Nawaz Sharif is the former prime minister of Pakistan, now opposition leader. I spoke with him, along with the Reverend Jackson, on Reverend Jackson’s show Keep Hope Alive at Rockefeller Center on Sunday morning. Nawaz Sharif was speaking from rural Pakistan.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, a house divided. Reverend Jesse Jackson talks about, well, the fault lines in his family — who supports Barack Obama, who supports Hillary Clinton. Stay with us.