Pakistan: Background

Brief history of the 2008 Pakistan election

Pakistan’s general parliamentary elections, ultimately held on Feb. 18, 2008, had originally been scheduled for early January of that year. But the elections were postponed following Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s Nov. 3, 2007 declaration of a state of emergency suspending the nation’s constitution. At the outset of the emergency, Musharraf and his information minister made numerous pronouncements about the rescheduling of the elections, but ultimately the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27 prompted the Election Commission to postpone the elections until Feb. 18.

Background on Benazir Bhutto

In 1988 at age 35, Benazir Bhutto was the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state. She was the Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988-1990 and then again from 1993-1996. To date, she is Pakistan’s first and only female prime minister. Bhutto chaired the left of center political party, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). In 1990, after 20 months as prime minister, Bhutto was removed from office by then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on the grounds of alleged corruption. In 1993, Bhutto was re-elected but was again removed in 1996 on similar charges by then President Farooq Leghari. In 1998, she went into self-imposed exile in Dubai.

On September 1, 2007, Bhutto promised the Daily Telegraph that she would return to Pakistan. On October 2, the Pakistani Cabinet announced plans to drop all corruption charges against Bhutto. After reaching an understanding with President Pervez Musharraf that dropped all corruption charges and granted her amnesty, Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan on October 18 after eight years of self-imposed exile. A crowd of a perhaps as many as a million people met her at the Karachi airport. That same day, at least 138 people were killed and 600 injured as two bombs exploded near a truck carrying Bhutto into the city.

In the months following Bhutto’s return to Pakistan leading up the 2008 election, more than 150 people were killed and more than 600 people were injured in assassination attempts. Yet, Bhutto’s support was stronger than ever: 5,000 party loyalists even went to jail for attending a rally which Bhutto was going to lead.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan & its crises of leadership

Pakistan, a nation of 180 million people, was born as an explicitly Muslim state in 1947 out of the partition of British-controlled India, and was reconfigured in 1971, after the breakaway of East Pakistan into the independent state of Bangladesh. For most of its history Pakistan has struggled with an unstable political system— there have been four coups in 60 years of nationhood —a situation heightened by internal corruption and by tensions with its neighbors, especially India over the volatile situation of Kashmir. Both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers.

In October 1999, General Pervez Musharraf came to power after his overthrow of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in an coup launched by top army generals who took over the country after Sharif had first tried to oust Musharraf as the Chief of Army Staff.

Initially, Musharraf proved to be a popular leader inside Pakistan and in the West. His popularity began to wane significantly, however, when not quite two years later, in June 2001, Musharraf appointed himself president—giving himself both the military and civilian positions of army chief and Pakistani president. Three months later, following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration pressured Musharraf to become a key ally of the United States in its fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The demands challenged the balance of power within Pakistan—Pakistan’s intelligence services and portions of the military had been backers of the Afghan Taliban regime. Great power politics and economic necessities drove Musharraf to agree to the US alliance, but at a significant internal political cost. Islamic groups inside Pakistan supported the extremists and the tribal areas of mountainous western Pakistan became a refuge for both Al Qaeda forces and the Taliban.

The genesis of the fall 2007 state of emergency began in the spring of that year, when Musharraf tried to force out the independent-minded chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. That power struggle prompted strong protests in the street, from civil society groups and from abroad. After Musharraf’s re-election as president on Oct. 6, 2007—an election boycotted by the opposition—the Bush administration pressured Musharraf to contact Benazir Bhutto, living in exile, about a power-sharing agreement.

Musharraf and Bhutto failed to come to an agreement, however, and on Nov. 3, fearing that the Supreme Court was about to rule against him on the legality of his election, Musharraf declared the state of emergency, citing the threat of religious extremism. The Pakistani government arrested hundreds of political opponents including lawyers and human rights activists, forced the majority of the Supreme Court to resign and imposed a media blackout, blocking national and international TV channels, including GEO TV, the BBC and CNN. The government also expelled three British journalists from the Daily Telegraph.

After Bhutto returned to Pakistan on Oct. 18, to campaign as her party’s candidate for prime minister, she publicly took a position against the state of emergency, noting that the declaration would make fair elections very difficult. She scheduled a Pakistan People’s Party rally against the state of emergency on Nov. 8, but the government placed her under house arrest just hours before she was due to give her speech. The following day, the Pakistani government withdrew her arrest warrant, allowing her to travel freely and hold public rallies. Other opposition figures also faced harassment from the government.

The sequence of events prompted Nawaz Sharif, to also return from exile to make a bid for prime minister of his party, the Pakistan Muslim League. On Nov. 28, 25 days into the emergency, Musharraf resigned as army chief. Two days later he was sworn into the office of president as a purely civilian leader. Musharraf authorized the release of several thousand detainees, but thousands more remained in detention. He announced, however, that he would lift the state of emergency on Dec. 16.

Bhutto and Sharif welcomed the announcement, and in early December publicized their demand that Musharraf fulfill his promise to lift the state of emergency before the scheduled January parliamentary elections. They threatened to boycott the parliamentary elections if he failed to do so, as their parties had boycotted the October presidential one. In a countering move, on Dec. 15, 2007, Musharraf ended the state of emergency one day earlier than he had announced.

Twelve days later, on Dec. 27, Bhutto was assassinated. Although traveling in a bulletproof vehicle while leaving a political rally for her Pakistan People’s Party, she stood up through the sunroof to respond to the crowds. A gun fired and explosives went off, killing about 20. Bhutto was rushed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead less than an hour later. Violent protests broke out across the country.

Three days later, at a news conference on Dec. 30 following a meeting of the PPP leadership, Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari and son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari announced that 19-year-old Bilawal would succeed his mother as head of the party, with his father as the effective head until the son completed his studies at Oxford.

After discussions between Sharif and Asif Zardari over whether the PPP should boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections together with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, Zardari convinced Sharif to take part in the elections and then join in a coalition government, arguing that their parties would likely win after the protests against Musharraf’s state of emergency and after the assassination of his wife.

Political violence continued during the weeks preceding the Feb. 18 elections. One suicide car bomb killed 27 and injured 37 attending a political rally for the Awami National Party, a second suicide car bomb killed 37 and injured 93 outside the home of a PPP candidate, a third suicide attack, this time on an army outpost, killed two civilians and injured eight, and militants targeted and destroyed a polling station.

For the Feb. 18 elections, more than 60,000 polling stations were set up across the country to serve the 81 million registered voters. The PPP won the most seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, with 88 out of 272, and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League finished second with 68. The victory of these two parties was even more significant than those totals suggest, because of the 272 seats in the Assembly, 60 seats are reserved for women and 10 for religious minorities. Thirteen other parties took part in the election of candidates to the assembly.

Farewell to Musharraf

On August 7, 2008, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League agreed to force Musharraf to step down as president and to begin impeachment hearings against him. After some political maneuvering, Musharraf resigned as president of Pakistan on Aug 18, 2008.

Resources on the Pakistan election

Wikipedia entry on the election