Who Will Succeed Bhutto?

Try as Nawaz Sharif might to carry the banner of Benazir Bhutto, he might not be the optimal anti-Musharraf candidate. For one thing, even if Musharraf holds a promised election, Sharif isn’t eligible to run, thanks to a ruling of the Musharraf-controlled Electoral Commission. For another, there’s another secular, democratic politician waiting in the wings who might resonate with this year’s middle-class rejection of Musharraf.

Aitzaz Ahsan was the chief counsel for former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose ouster by Musharraf on dubious charges of personal corruption proved to be the final straw for much of middle-class Pakistan. According to Pakistan expert Barnett Rubin, Ahsan has a good shot at inheriting the reins of the Pakistan People’s Party. A longtime PPP member, respected barrister and democracy advocate, Ahsan’s representation of Chaudhry landed him a stint in prison when Musharraf declared emergency rule on November 3. Ahsan, not surprisingly, disagreed with the more conciliatory stance toward Musharraf that brought Bhutto back from exile earlier this year, according to Rubin.

Ahsan has an international profile as well. An old enemy of 80s-vintage dictator Zia ul-Haq, he gained global esteem for his willingness to go to jail for the sake of democracy. After his November detention, 33 U.S. Senators wrote to Musharraf demanding his release. Still, Ahsan’s profile is much higher in Pakistan than it is in the United States. But shortly before Christmas, he penned this New York Times op-ed:

Last Thursday morning, I was released to celebrate the Id holidays. But that evening, driving to Islamabad to say prayers at Faisal Mosque, my family and I were surrounded at a rest stop by policemen with guns cocked and I was dragged off and thrown into the back of a police van. After a long and harrowing drive along back roads, I was returned home and to house arrest.

Every day, thousands of lawyers and members of the civil society striving for a liberal and tolerant society in Pakistan demonstrate on the streets. They are bludgeoned by the regime’s brutal police and paramilitary units. Yet they come out again the next day.

People in the United States wonder why extremist militants in Pakistan are winning. What they should ask is why does President Musharraf have so little respect for civil society — and why does he essentially have the backing of American officials?

With Ahsan a potential successor to Bhutto, those questions have a renewed salience. As does his implicit challenge to Washington to support Pakistani democracy:

How long can the leaders of the lawyers’ movement be detained? They will all be out one day. And they will neither be silent nor still.

They will recount the brutal treatment meted out to them for seeking the establishment of a tolerant, democratic, liberal and plural political system in Pakistan. They will state how the writ of habeas corpus was denied to them by the arbitrary and unconstitutional firing of Supreme and High Court justices. They will spell out precisely how one man set aside a Constitution under the pretext of an “emergency,” arrested the judges, packed the judiciary, “amended” the Constitution by a personal decree and then “restored” it to the acclaim of London and Washington.

Correction: Due to an error on my part, this post initially attributed to Husain Haqqani comments that should have been attributed to Barnett Rubin. Haqqani did not make any prognostication to me about Ahsan. I misread my own notes when writing this post, and I apologize for the mistake.

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