Posts Tagged ‘ Asif Ali Zardari ’

Pakistan’s Dangerous Elections

As Reported by Fasih Ahmed for The Daily Spin

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A self-confessed peddler of nuclear weapons, a sport star turned messiah, a Saudi proxy who once wished to declare himself the Shadow of God on Earth—these are just some of the candidates in Pakistan’s upcoming national elections.

Much rides on the May elections, which, if they take place as planned, will mark the first-ever transition in Pakistan’s history from a fully civilian elected government to another. The path to revival or ruin for this nuclear-armed nation of some 180 million will depend on the results of what is shaping up to be a highly contentious—and dangerous—race. At stake is how Pakistan will deal with the looming withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan, where Pakistani generals fear India will establish a foothold. Then there is the issue of the state’s inchoate policy toward the al Qaeda and Taliban terror franchises that has cost Pakistan some 49,000 lives since the 9/11 attacks. Add to that the economic mess—food and fuel shortages, unemployment, inflation, mounting costs from the war on terror, running deficits from voter-pleasing social welfare and development schemes—and the electorate’s not surprising loss of faith in Parliament.

And terrorists, especially the Pakistani Taliban, have threatened to disrupt the elections through intimidation and assassinations. Among their avowed targets: President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party (and their political allies, which are also deemed liberal and pro-American) as well as former president and Army chief Pervez Musharraf, who recently ended his four-year self-exile and returned to Pakistan.

The Election Commission has pleaded with the Army to help keep the peace on May 11. But already, the violence is taking its toll. On Sunday, a bomb disrupted the campaign office belonging to a Zardari ally in northwestern Pakistan. Two were killed, and at least five injured. The Pashtun-dominated party is also being bloodied by drive-by bombings in Karachi. Earlier this month, the district election commissioner of Quetta was shot dead, and pamphlets warning citizens against voting have been menacingly strewn across Baluchistan province.

At the same time, terrorists have promised not to disrupt the prospects of cricket legend Imran Khan or the Pakistan Muslim League (NAWAZ), a party strategically allied with sectarian and terrorist groups for electoral muscle.

Pundits have speculated that threats from the Taliban as well as the weight of incumbency will suppress turnout and that the goal of “free, fair, and peaceful” elections mostly will remain an unfulfilled aspiration. But the 85-year-old chief election commissioner of the country, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, thinks otherwise. During the last election, voter turnout hovered around 40 percent. But Ebrahim says several factors–including a vibrant media culture, a generation of young idealistic voters, and an empowered civil society—could bring a surprising turnout as high as 60 percent of the electorate. “When I see the enthusiasm of the people, I am inclined to think it is possible,” he told The Daily Beast. “No one can promise that the democratic exercise will be completely free and fair,” he says. “But I am confident the 2013 elections will be different.”

This time, 86.1 million Pakistanis—more than a third of them between the ages of 18 and 30—are registered to vote at polling stations across the country. The Election Commission has allowed some 148 political parties to run, allotting symbols to each party to help voters who cannot read. Nuclear salesman A.Q. Khan’s party, for example, has been given a missile; Imran Khan’s, a cricket bat.

With more than 10,000 candidates nationwide, the polls will present Pakistanis with a range of options to choose from. The left—which wants social freedom and liberties, peace with India, a laissez-faire approach to Afghanistan, continued strong relations with the U.S., and curbs on the Army’s power—is led by the Pakistan Peoples Party and its allies. The right—anti-India, anti-America, and preaching the importance of religion in political life—is represented by Imran Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf; Saudi-backed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League, as well as smaller religious parties. The fringe is occupied by Musharraf, A.Q. Khan, and the political divisions of militant groups that have also been allowed to run.

According to the most recent polls, if elections were held today, they would yield a hung Parliament, and thus require expert coalition building. That in turn would mean that candidates spearheading smaller parties—candidates such as Imran Khan—will become kingmakers, handed disproportionate power to decide Pakistan’s future. 

Fasih Ahmed is the editor of Newsweek Pakistan. He won a New York Press Club award for Newsweek’s coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Ahmed was also the inaugural Daniel Pearl fellow and worked at The Wall Street Journal’s Washington, D.C., bureau in 2003. He graduated from Columbia University and lives in Lahore.

Return of an Erstwhile King

As Reported By The Economist

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PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, a former army dictator and president of Pakistan, returned from London on March 24th to the country he once commanded, after an absence of more than four years. He finds not a trace of the power and significance he once wielded.

He came, he said, to contest elections, scheduled for May 11th, and “to save Pakistan”. Though the country could certainly do with rescuing, Mr Musharraf faces stiff competition among those offering themselves as saviour. They include a former prime minister and his bitter enemy, Nawaz Sharif, and a notable cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan. Meanwhile, the outgoing government of the Pakistan Peoples Party achieved little, but its re-election is not out of the question.

A small crowd of supporters gathered at Karachi airport to welcome Mr Musharraf. “I cry when I see the state of Pakistan today,” he blustered. The rally his people had planned that evening had to be cancelled, apparently for security reasons. That may have been just as well: participants looked likely to be few.

Mr Musharraf lacks popularity and a political base. He also faces threats from the Pakistani Taliban and allied extremist groups. In office, he survived two well-planned assassination attempts. He will now have nowhere near the level of security that saved his life then. The Pakistani Taliban threatens a special squad that will “send Musharraf to hell”. When Benazir Bhutto returned from exile to Pakistan in October 2007, extremists bombed her motorcade after it left Karachi airport, killing around 140 people. She was unhurt in that attack. But a suicide bomber at a rally assassinated her two months later.

Mr Musharraf seized power in 1999 after the prime minister at that time, Mr Sharif, tried to sack him as army chief. He ruled Pakistan, first just as a general and later as president, until 2008, when rising unpopularity forced him to hold elections that his party lost.

He also faces a series of court cases in Pakistan and was careful to arrange pre-arrest bail before arriving. He is accused in the Bhutto murder case (though no direct evidence implicating him has emerged), as well as over the killing of a tribal leader, Akbar Bugti. And then he faces charges of treason, too, for staging his coup in 1999.

It was under Mr Musharraf that extremists turned on the state, after the attacks of September 11th 2001 led him to forge an alliance with America. Yet Mr Musharraf never turned on all militant groups, some of which operated with a degree of latitude. The Pakistani Taliban even seized a territory in the heart of the country, Swat.

Pakistan enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth during his time in office, but it was a bubbly time for Pakistan, and the bubbles burst as Mr Musharraf was leaving office. At least he managed to keep prices under control, especially for food.

Mr Musharraf is a big name internationally, but within Pakistan he now seems an irrelevance. His presence may become a sideshow in this election season.

More watched now will be the campaign of Imran Khan, who staged a huge rally on March 23rd in Lahore, Pakistan’s second city. After suddenly growing wildly popular in late 2011, with a promise of a new politics to break the established and corrupt two-party system, Mr Khan has lost much momentum in recent months. His showing in Lahore was an attempt to regain the initiative—and it proved that he can still pull a crowd. Mr Khan will win votes across the country but, with Pakistan’s first-past-the-post system, it may not translate into many seats.

This election, assuming it takes place, will mark the first time that one elected government completes a full term and hands power over to another. That is something, but the job of saving Pakistan remains, as ever, up for grabs.

Pakistan-Iran pipeline work ‘to begin on 11 March’

As Reported By The  BBC

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Work on a gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan will begin on 11 March, Pakistani officials say.

The project has led US officials to warn that it may fall foul of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The long-delayed project is seen in Pakistan as a way of combating the country’s chronic energy shortages with supplies of Iranian gas.

Officials told Pakistani media they hoped the presidents of both countries would attend a ceremony on 11 March.

President Asif Ali Zardari visited Iran earlier this week, meeting his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and finalised the multi-billion dollar deal.

Officials say the pipeline on the Iranian side of the border has been completed, and that this month will see the start of work on the project in Pakistan.

On Wednesday, the US warned Pakistan to “avoid any sanctionable activity” in connection with the project.

“We think that we provide and are providing the Pakistani government and people a better way to meet their energy needs,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters on Wednesday.

Last year Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar insisted the pipeline was “in Pakistan’s national interest and will be pursued and completed irrespective of any extraneous considerations”.

Power shortages have become a major issue in Pakistan, with the government ordering an investigation into a nation-wide power cut on Sunday blamed on a technical fault in a plant in south-western Balochistan province.

More Than 300 Killed in Pakistani Factory Fires

By Zia ur-Rehman and Salman Masood for The New York Times

Fire ravaged a textile factory complex in the commercial hub of Karachi early Wednesday, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors and raising questions about the woeful lack of regulation in a vital sector of Pakistan’s faltering economy.

It was Pakistan’s worst industrial accident, officials said, and it came just hours after another fire, at a shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore, had killed at least 25.

Flames and smoke swept the cramped textile factory in Baldia Town, a northwestern industrial suburb, creating panic among the hundreds of poorly paid workers who had been making undergarments and plastic tools.

They had few options of escape — every exit but one had been locked, officials said, and the windows were mostly barred. In desperation, some flung themselves from the top floors of the four-story building, sustaining serious injuries or worse, witnesses said. But many others failed to make it that far, trapped by an inferno that advanced mercilessly through a building that officials later described as a death trap.

Rescue workers said most of the victims died of smoke inhalation, and many of the survivors sustained third-degree burns. As firefighters advanced into the wreckage during the day, battling back flames, they found dozens of bodies clumped together on the lower floors.

One survivor, Muhammad Aslam, said he heard two loud blasts before the factory filled first with smoke, then with the desperate screams of his fellow workers. “Only one entrance was open. All the others were closed,” he said at a hospital, describing scenes of panic and chaos.

Mr. Aslam, who was being treated for a broken leg, said he saved himself by leaping from a third-floor window.

Hundreds of anguished relatives gathered at the site, many of them sobbing as they sought news. Some impeded the rescue operation, and baton-wielding police officers tried to disperse the crowd but failed.

“If my son does not return, I will commit suicide in front of the factory,” one woman shouted before news cameras as relatives tried to console her.

The death toll rose quickly. By evening, the Karachi commissioner, Roshan Ali Sheikh, said that 289 people had died, most of them men. The provincial health minister, Sagheer Ahmed, put the toll at 248, which he said was the number of bodies accounted for at major hospitals. The number was expected to rise further.

In the shoe factory fire in Lahore, 25 people were reported killed and dozens wounded. Officials said that blaze had been set off by a generator that caught fire and ignited chemicals stored nearby in the factory, illegally located in a residential neighborhood. Most of the victims were men under 25.

The fires immediately revived long-running questions about the regulation of Pakistan’s manufacturing sector, centered in Karachi, and of the vital textiles industry in particular.

Textiles are a major source of foreign currency for Pakistan, accounting for 7.4 percent of its gross domestic product in 2011 and employing 38 percent of the manufacturing work force. Pakistani cotton products are highly sought in neighboring India and form the backbone of a burgeoning fashion industry that caters to the elite. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government has often called on the United States to drop tariff barriers to Pakistani textile imports, which it says would be preferable to traditional aid.

But the industry suffers from weak regulation, characterized by lax oversight and corruption. Business owners often put profits over safety, workers’ rights advocates say.

On Wednesday evening the police raided the home of the owner of the Karachi factory, Abdul Aziz, who appeared to have gone into hiding. According to an online business information service, his company, Ali Enterprises, manufactured denim, knitted garments and hosiery and had capital of between $10 million and $50 million.

His nephew, Shahid Bhaila, the chief executive officer of the company, was also being sought for questioning. The police said both men had been placed on the exit control list, barring them from leaving the country.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the most powerful political party in Karachi, announced three days of mourning. The city electricity company said it would cancel all outstanding bills for the families of those affected as a good will gesture.

The cause of the fire remained unclear. Geo News, the largest news channel, speculated that it had been started by extortionists, reporting that Mr. Aziz had previously faced a demand for a shakedown payment of more than $100,000, which he refused.

But others said an electrical fire was more likely. Wali Muhammad, a former electrical inspector, said that most accidental fires are caused by short circuits in equipment. But since 2003, he said, inspectors had been forbidden by law from visiting factories in Karachi and Punjab; it was not immediately clear why.

“This is criminal negligence,” he told Geo News, referring to the ban.

Another mystery surrounded the locked factory doors. Some survivors said the exits had been shuttered to prevent workers from slipping out early; others said it was the consequence of a recent break-in.

A majority of the garment workers came from Orangi Town, a poor working-class neighborhood in Karachi. Seventeen of the victims came from the same street, local news media reported.

The factory building suffered severe structural damage in the blaze, and officials feared it would collapse on rescue workers during the day.

While many distraught family members set up camp near the factory, others moved between city hospitals, seeking news of loved ones. One man said he was looking for his cousin, who earned $70 a month as a cashier. “He’s still missing. I’m afraid he may have been working in the basement,” the man said.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called on the government to mount an immediate investigation. “The head of the firefighting operations in Karachi has noted that the factory was dangerous, flimsily built and had no emergency exits,” said Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the rights group. “Why did all of that escape official attention earlier?”

Workplace safety is guaranteed under Pakistan’s Constitution, but labor leaders say that government oversight has crumbled rapidly in recent years, along with a general decline in governance.

Sharafat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research, a labor rights group, said that 151 workers died in accidents in 2011. The state was partly responsible for the deaths, he said, because its civil servants “silently and criminally allow violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety provisions at work.”

Pakistan and India to Resume Cricket Matches

By Michele Langevine Leiby for The Washington Post

Whatever their differences, Pakistanis and Indians love their cricket. Their armies might fight wars and their governments may deeply mistrust each other, but sports fans and politicians in both countries see a diplomatic bright spot: a series of matches this year between the historical rivals.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India announced last week that the country would resume matches with Pakistan for the first time in five years. They will be the first bilateral games between the countries since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which India says were launched by Pakistani terrorists who have been protected from prosecution by Pakistan’s government.

Although dates and the venue are still being worked out, the prospect of a renewed sporting rivalry has stirred optimism for rapprochement in both capitals.

“I think this will be further cementing the bilateral relationship, which is improving by the day,” Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said. Krishna is planning a visit to Islamabad in September.

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressing hope that reviving cricket matches would improve trust between the two nations, the newspaper Dawn reported.

Pakistani cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan also weighed in. “Anything which can bring both the countries to negotiations and normalcy is very good, and we must appreciate that,” he said.

Khan, who is running for prime minister, captained the Pakistan cricket team to its 1992 World Cup championship.

Young Pakistanis and Indians — aided by social media and unhampered by the long and contentious history — have found other ways to interact. Facebook pages such as “Romancing the Border” offer a forum for college students from both sides to learn about each other.

But online messaging and cricket diplomacy may not have much impact on a fundamentally hostile relationship; India and Pakistan fought three wars and remain locked in conflict over control of Kashmir. Their militaries are faced off on the disputed Siachen Glacier, described as the world’s highest battleground, where more men are lost due to the brutal conditions than to actual combat. In April, an avalanche at the entry to the glacier buried dozens of Pakistanis, most of them soldiers.

Pakistan Elects ‘Rental Raja’ as Prime Minister

By Ben Doherty for The Sydney Morning Herald

A turbulent week in Pakistani politics has ended with the election of a new prime minister, but one who appears unlikely to stay long in the top job.

The past seven days have seen a long-serving prime minister sacked by the Supreme Court for contempt, his putative replacement felled by an arrest warrant for drugs importation and, finally, a stopgap candidate elected, with the country now almost certainly headed for early elections within months.

The new prime minister is Raja Pervez Ashraf, a 61-year-old from Sindh, who was water and power minister in the previous government. That job made him unpopular in a country stricken by chronic power shortages that only worsened on his watch. Some parts of the country are blacked out 22 hours a day. Mr Ashraf has also been accused of corruption over the importation of short-term power stations. Known as ”rental power” projects, they were costly and produced little power.

He is accused of making millions on the side from the deals and his derogatory nickname ”Rental Raja” was shouted by opponents in Parliament yesterday even as he was showered in rose petals on his election. Mr Ashraf won the parliamentary vote for prime minister 211 votes to 89.
In his first speech to Parliament, Mr Ashraf called on Pakistani Taliban militants to lay down their arms. ”The irresponsible behaviour of religious extremists has ruined Islam and Pakistan. I, as prime minister of Pakistan, appeal to them to lay down arms and join the mainstream of life.”

And he said his government would look to rebuild its relationship with key ally and aid donor, the US. ”We will develop cordial relations with the United States and international community on the basis of equal rights and dignity,” he said. Relations between the countries have rarely been worse, and show little scope for improvement.

Pakistan is refusing to reopen its border to Afghanistan to American trucks, after a botched US attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. And the US will not countenance abandoning its drone attack program in Pakistan’s north-west.

Regardless, few in Pakistan believe Mr Ashraf will have time to deliver even a fraction of what he promised in his maiden address. His government has, at most, nine months before elections are due, but they are expected now before the end of the year. ”This year will be the year of new elections, and we are going for the elections,” senior Pakistani People’s Party member Khursheed Shah said.
Raza Rumi, director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute, said Mr Ashraf was a ”cynical choice” for PM. ”Whoever takes over as prime minister will be in for a very short time. Obviously the Pakistan People’s Party will not choose its best for this stint. They will choose people who can be dispensed with.”

On Tuesday, the former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, was dismissed by the Supreme Court for refusing a direction to write a letter allowing Swiss authorities to investigate corruption allegations against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (the same demand is likely to be made of Mr Ashraf). Then, the man tipped to fill the PM’s post, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, had an arrest warrant issued for him over the illegal importation of the chemical ephedrine, used to make methamphetamine.

Pakistan Probe Says Ex-Envoy to US Wrote ‘Treasonous’ Memo to Washington

By Asif Shahzad for The Associated Press

A judicial investigation has concluded Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S. did write a secret letter to American officials requesting their help in reining in the powerful army last year, a lawmaker and state media said Tuesday. The finding could lead to treason charges against the envoy.

The former envoy Husain Haqqani was a close aide to President Asif Ali Zardari and a member of his party. Zardari himself could be threatened if any evidence surfaces showing he ordered, or knew of, the memo.

Haqqani, who resigned from his post after the scandal broke and currently lives in America, has denied he wrote the memo and said the commission’s report was “political and one-sided.” Many independent observers have also concluded that the probe was politicized.

The commission was investigating politically explosive allegations that Haqqani sought U.S. assistance last year in warding off an alleged army coup in the aftermath of the U.S raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May. The scandal pitted the weak civilian government against the army, and drew in other the feuding power brokers in Pakistan — the Supreme Court, the opposition and the media.

The dispute over the letter and other politically driven clashes between Pakistani state institutions, as well as an increasingly hostile relationship with Washington, have intensified strains on the shaky elected government as it struggles against Islamist militancy and economic stagnation. Some analysts have predicted events could end in a destabilizing stalemate, conditions that in the past have led to coups and other military interventions.

Allegations of collusion between Washington and Pakistani officials may also complicate American efforts to rebuild security cooperation with Pakistan, thrown into disarray in November by U.S. airstrikes that accidentally targeted Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border and killed 24 of them.

The United States wants Pakistan to resolve its political turmoil and focus on fighting militancy and helping in its campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. But anti-Americanism is rife in Pakistan, and few politicians are willing to publicly help Washington. Pakistan has yet to reopen supply lines for NATO and US troops that it blocked after the November airstrikes. On Monday, US officials said a negotiating team in Pakistan seeking to get the supply lines reopened was returning home, the latest sign of stalled relations between the two countries. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, on a visit to Pakistan, said his government wanted to see the supply lines reopened.

“Those lines of communication affect us as well,” he told reporters, but added it was an issue for Islamabad and Washington to resolve.

The commission called witnesses and sought telephone records from Haqqani, who did not appear before the probe. Many other Pakistani observers have been skeptical of the investigation. Haqqani’s chief accuser in the case was an American-Pakistani businessman with a history of making unsubstantiated allegations and who once appeared in a music video featuring naked female mud wrestlers.

The commission read out its finding in the Supreme Court. Opposition lawmaker Khwaja Asif, who was present, said it concluded Haqqani tried to undermine Pakistan’s constitution and was not “loyal to the state.” The court ordered Haqqani to appear before it after two weeks.

Retired Justice Nasira Javed said the commission was working on orders from the Supreme Court and criminal proceedings against Haqqani on treason charges could now begin.

The release of the findings came just hours before the Supreme Court heard testimony from a billionaire property developer who claimed that the son of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry accepted $3.5 million worth of shopping and foreign trips to influence judges at the court. The case is embarrassing for Chaudhry, and is seen by some as part of a campaign by supporters of Zardari’s government to tarnish his image. Chaudhry recently convicted Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani, an ally of Zardari, of contempt of court for not opening corruption charges against the president.

Alluding to that case, ex-envoy Haqqani said the “commission’s report has been released to distract attention from other more embarrassing developments.”

Supporters of Haqqani and the government accuse the Supreme Court and the army of working against Zardari and the political party he heads. His movement claims a long history of persecution by the army in Pakistan

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