Erstwhile enemies, the military and the MQM cosy up to each other as new power dynamics change the political landscape of Sindh, before and after the referendum called by Pervez Musharraf.
When General Zia ul-Haq called a referendum in Pakistan on 19 December 1984 for the purpose of extending his rule by another five years, the people of Sindh — still reeling from the military regime’s severe crackdown during the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) — displayed their resentment by avoiding the ballot box. The polling stations in Karachi and rural Sindh had a deserted look, and the message to the late dictator was clear.
Sindh had always been leader in Pakistani politics and the province’s apathetic attitude naturally sent shock waves reverberating throughout the country. The result was that polling officials spent the day swatting flies. The referendum’s results, when announced, instantly became the subject of jokes, and even inspired an idiom used for occasions where someone idiotically cheats.
General Zia’s referendum asked the people of Pakistan this question: “Do the people of Pakistan endorse the process initiated by General Zia to bring all laws in conformity with the injunctions of Islam, as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah, and do they support the continuation of that process for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people?” A vote in the affirmative was a vote for General Zia to remain president for the next five years.
Understandably, the country’s democratic elements resisted the general’s plan and the MRD called for a boycott. Zia took a hard line, and detained opposition leaders throughout the country a week before the referendum. Troops patrolled the streets in Karachi and a ban was imposed on “unauthorised persons” near polling stations, making an independent verification of the turnout virtually impossible. According to official results, out of the total 34,992,425 registered voters in Pakistan, 21,7501,901 — 62 percent — cast their ballots. General Zia received an astounding 97.7 percent share of the vote. Except for a faction of the Muslim League led by Pir Pagara, and the Jamaat-I-Islami (JI), no political party in the country accepted this referendum result. While MRD leaders and independent estimates indicated that not more than five percent of the voters had participated, the referendum ‘legitimised’ General Zia’s presidency for another five years.
The General’s referendum was conducted just a year after the brutal suppression of Sindhis during the MRD movement in which hundreds of people were murdered in the rural areas of the province. The MRD and the retaliatory state violence was epochal in the modern history of Sindh, a region that had known relatively uninterrupted peace since British General Charles Napier took control of the region in the 1843 Battles of Miani, Dabbo and Imambargah.
Despite the obvious transformation in the political scenario, there are many similarities between the referenda called by General Zia on 19 December 1984 and General Musharraf on 30 April 2002. Zia had crushed every democratic voice raised against him and masterminded the US-sponsored Afghan Mujahideen resistance against the former Soviet Union and the then socialist government of Afghanistan. The present military government has been imposing curbs on the activities of the political parties, although it has not yet censored independent media. It, too, has assisted the Americans in Afghanistan, this time to dislodge the Taliban regime, an erstwhile client of Islamabad. After being ‘elected’ in the referendum, General Zia still needed constitutional cover for his dictatorial policies and the abrogation of Pakistan’s constitution, leading him to allow partyless elections in 1985. Subsequently, a government, with Mohammad Khan Junejo as the prime minister, passed the Eighth Amendment in the constitution legitimising Zia’s actions and granting him legal sanction to dislodge any elected government in future.
The referendum of 30 April 2002 was similar in many respects. General Musharraf started his political ‘campaign’ by addressing a public meeting in Lahore on 9 April, and he subsequently addressed dozens of such gatherings throughout the country, including some in Sindh. During this campaign, he has taken on the leaders of the two mainstream parties, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), vowing to exclude them from October general elections. Simultaneously, the President-General has drafted an ordinance banning any person who has twice been prime minister, as both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have, to seek election to that office. This move is similar to another trick used by General Zia to keep Benazir Bhutto from becoming the prime minister — he formed an election committee which forbade women from holding the offices of prime minister and president and mandated that the female candidates for public office must be above 50 years of age and have prior written permission from their husbands.
Musharraf’s Sindh expedition
President Pervez Musharraf started his Sindh campaign in the town of Thatta, where despite careful use of the television camera it was clear that police and law enforcement representatives outnumbered the assembled public. The nazim (mayor) of Thatta, Shafqat Shah Shirazi, has long willingly shifted with the changing winds of Paidstani politics, and he utilised every available method to get people — predominantly supporters of the PPP — to gather in front of Musharraf, who was wearing a Sindhi turban and ajrak. He did succeed in gathering a few thousand rural peasants and government employees, but it was an unresponsive crowd as General Musharraf harshly criticised Benazir Bhutto in a town where PPP has never lost a seat in regular elections. The General affected surprise at the tepid reception, but he should not have been surprised if he understood politics better. At another stop in Sanghar, Musharraf repeated the same allegations and was pleased to receive some applause from the assembled Punjabis who have settled there, whose political inclinations often differ from the original residents.
Musharraf’s performances in Sukkur and Jacobabad were similarly styled. Nonetheless, he was expected to make a strong showing in Karachi as the result of a deal with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the strong ethnic-based party formed by the offspring of the Urdu-speaking migrants (Mohajir) from India that dominates in Sindh’s urban centres. The army and the MQM had been at loggerheads since 1992, but the tables have turned. Most of Sindh’s political parties have declared themselves either for or against General Musharraf, but the MQM, opted to keep its options open, and has in fact been extending covert support to the military ruler. The party’s strong showing at the recent Sindh Unity Convention shows that the MQM has at last also made inroads in the interior parts of Sindh.
The Sindhi nationalist outfit Jeay Sindh Mahaz (JSM) and its supporters from the suburbs of Karachi and various rural parts of Sindh also received a boost from the rally. Whereas in the past the slogan of “Jeay Mohajir” (long live the Mohajir) was the favourite chant, this year “Jeay Sindh” was the choice of enthusiastic activists from the MQM, JSM and “observers” of various Sindhi political and literary organisations. The venue, Karachi’s Nishtar Park, was overflowing with people, who spilled into the surrounding lanes. Women and children filled the balconies and leaned out of the surrounding windows, and even though most of the assembled did not understand Sindhi, they listened in pin-drop silence. As the traffic police became spectators, MQM activists even controlled traffic on thoroughfares and alternate routes. Even the police had orders not to interfere with the MQM proceedings.
MQM chief Altaf Hussain has formed the Sindh Organising Committee, which is headed by a Karachi-based Sindhi intellectual, Ali Ahmed Brohi. Hussain has announced that the party will field a Sindhi-speaking candidate in a Karachi constituency in the forthcoming general elections. Brohi is considered to be the first Sindhi figure to inspire many Sindhi intellectuals and ordinary people to change their traditionally cool opinions of the MQM, and a number of them have even joined the party. Hussain’s organising strength in the towns and villages of interior Sindh has also grown considerably.
In his Nishtar Park speech, Hussain lashed at out at the major political forces — the PPP and the PML-N — as well as the Muttahida Majlis-I-Amal, an alliance of six religious parties. His criticism centres on the comparisons they make between the referenda of Generals Zia and Musharraf. Except for the PPP, all the political and religious parties which opposed the 30 April referendum supported Zia’s earlier referendum and Hussain asked their leaders to explain to their constituencies why they have reversed their position on military-led referenda. As for the PPP, Hussain criticises it for its increasingly pro-establishment and power-hungry behaviour that, he claims, “made Ms Bhutto so selfish that she never bothered to catch the killers of her father and brothers”. His move to link his support for the referendum to the issue of provincial autonomy enshrined in the 1940 Lahore Resolution is considered to be a shrewd trick to keep his options open. “It is a game to get maximum advantages from the ruling corridors,” noted one observer. MQM Deputy Convener Aftab Shaikh insinuated that something “pleasant” had happened between the MQM and the country’s current top leadership, which was evident from the fact that the MQM was allowed to hold a full-strength show without administrative hassles.
The MQM has quietly urged its ranks to support the referendum, and a healthy turnout was expected on 30 April, at least in the urban centres of Sindh. Even though the kind of provincial autonomy demanded by the MQM is not on the cards yet, analysts believe that assurance to this effect has been given by the government to satisfy the party’s local allies. The release of a large number of imprisoned MQM leaders and activists is the most significant tangible shift in the establishment’s policy towards the MQM, which shows that the army has begun to set aside its decade-long grudge. Taking advantage of its improved fortunes, the MQM has started its pre-elections campaign by holding a series of press conferences showcasing its different political leaders and former members of the National and Sindh assemblies. These MQM leaders are visiting Sindh’s cities as a part of the party’s mass-contact campaign. The MQM leadership — very apprehensive till recently — has now allegedly decided to take part in the October general elections, although a formal announcement to this effect has not yet been made. An MQM delegation is scheduled to meet President Musharraf after the referendum and submit a blueprint for the development of Karachi and some other parts of Sindh. Discussions of a bargain are expected for the meeting.
PPP and JI
The PPP and JI have struck a deal in Sindh on a one-point agenda — opposing the referendum — and are trying to devise a counter strategy against General Musharraf. “Yes, we have met the PPP local leadership twice and we have happily agreed on some points, including anti-referendum strategy,” the Jamaat’s Karachi Amir, Mairaj-ul- Huda said. The PPP and JI have developed contacts at the provincial and district levels in an effort to make the President’s campaign in Karachi a failure. Jamaat’s provincial Amir, Asadullah Bhutto, met the PPP’s Ghulam Qadir Bhutto while Mairaj-ul-Huda had a meeting with PPP Karachi leaders Muzaffar Shujra and Nabil Gabol. Gabol, a former deputy speaker of Sindh Assembly under the previous PPP government, has said that the Jamaat leadership feels that the two parties enjoy mass roots in the metropolis and must act together on “certain issues of mutual interest”.
The two parties’ leaderships are working out a future line of action not merely against the referendum but also on substantive long-term issues of mutual concern. “In the City District Government of Karachi, we are the two largest parties and would act together on all the issues pertaining to the city and rest of the province,” explains Gabol. JI Sindh chief Asadullah Bhutto has also indicated his party’s rigid opposition to the President’s Sindh expedition, stating, “Our party has asked our nazims even not to receive the President, as his referendum campaign has clear intentions to achieve political gains.” Interestingly, neither of the two parties is in a position to dislodge the pro-Musharraf Karachi naib nazim (deputy mayor) Tariq Hasan. According to provisions enshrined in the Local Government Ordinance 2001, a move cannot be initiated against a nazim or naib nazim individually. Under the provisions, a no-confidence move can only be initiated against the both or neither. This provision has forced both the government and the opposition parties to stay within the existing system. The JI and the PPP leaderships, however, have plans to devise cooperative arrangements in local matters.
TWO GENERALS, TWO REFERENDA
The legality of the referendum also received prominent attention, prior to the supreme court giving a thumbs up to the general’s plans. The essential question was: Does a violation of law really matter in the context of today’s Pakistan? More to the point, was General Musharraf’s initial ascension to power or his assumption of the presidency legal? If not, why question the referendum alone?
The special circumstances existing in Pakistan, the pro-Musharraf jurists argued, provided justification for his previous actions (as confirmed by the supreme court) and now provided justification for the referendum. That the election commission conducting the referendum was headed by a former Chief Justice of Pakistan, and included four sitting judges of the high courts of the country, gave the exercise a degree of legal and constitutional bearing. (One member of the Commission, Justice Tariq Mehmood of the Balochistan High Court, resigned and was replaced by another judge of the same high court. In any event, a majority of the members of the commission, who are also members of the superior judiciary, do not seem to agree with Mr Mehmood’s interpretation of the law.) Interestingly, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, a federal law minister in the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government and author of the 1973 Constitution, argued in support of the referendum.
Musharraf issued an order allowing the election commission to hold a referendum on 30 April 2002, “to give mandate to General Pervez Musharraf to serve the nation as President for the period of five years”. The Referendum Order provided that citizens who have attained the age of 18 on or before 30 April, and has valid identity card, will be free to cast their vote in any polling station of his choice, indicating that no voters’ lists would be used in the referendum.
“The whole of Pakistan should be single constituency and every voter be entitled to cast his vote at a polling of his choice, regardless of his residence,” the order said. The question asked voters was: “For consolidating the local government system; establishment of democracy; continuation of reforms; end to sectarianism and fundamentalism; and fulfillment of Founder of the Nation’s concept of Pakistan, would you like to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as President of Pakistan for five years?”
The Referendum Order further provides that no court, tribunal or other authority can call into question the validity of any provision of the order, or action taken thereunder. If the majority of the votes support the referendum, “the People of Pakistan shall be deemed to have given the democratic mandate to General Pervez Musharraf to serve” as President of Pakistan for a period of five years. The period of five years begins from the first meeting of the parliament to be elected in the scheduled general elections of October 2002 in accordance with the judgment of the supreme court. The Referendum Order issued by Musharraf on 8 April 2002 serves an identical purpose as that issued by Zia in 1984, for the earlier one had also barred the jurisdiction of the courts to call in question the validity of any provision of the order or action taken thereunder.
Allowing voters to cast their votes at any polling station with no requirement of voters’ lists has visibly opened the possibilities for a predominantly rigged result. There are no restrictions on which polling station one can vote from and one needs only an identity card to cast the vote. “The mind boggles at the sheer number of opportunities this will provide for duplication of votes,” said one political analyst. Without the presence of polling agents from the opposition or any neutral party to oversee the legitimacy of the process, there would have been enough opportunities for stuffing the ballot box. This was how General Zia’s abysmally low turnout translated into a bumper headcount, back in 1984.