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Can Sharif Pull Pakistan Out Of Terrorism Quicksand?

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By Gul Jammas Hussain *

Since 2001, when Islamabad joined Washington’s war on terror against Pashtuns in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been sinking into the quicksand of extremism and terrorism.

The U.S. war caused numerous civilian causalities in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan which kindled sentiments of revenge in the hearts of Pashtun fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan.

So, they began to infiltrate into Afghanistan to fight against U.S. troops and their allies. More than forty million Pashtuns live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan porous border known as the Durand Line.

Washington forced Islamabad to send troops into the tribal areas to prevent the tribesmen from crossing the border, and in response, they turned their guns on Pakistani security forces.

Thus, the war in Afghanistan set off a conflagration of extremism and terrorism throughout Pakistan's Pashtun belt, whose flames still threaten to consume the country.

In May, Pakistanis went to the polls and elected members of the National Assembly (the lower house of Pakistan’s bicameral parliament) and Provincial Assemblies – Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province.

Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party secured a resounding victory in the election.

The Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) won nearly half of the 272 seats in the National Assembly that were contested on May 11.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice or PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won around 30 seats each.

Some smaller parties announced their backing for the PML-N, and many independent MPs joined Sharif’s party. So now, 63-year-old Sharif is all set to become Pakistan’s prime minister for the third time in his over 30-year political career.

In the lead-up to the election, most political analysts in Pakistan and many foreign observers had been predicting a hung parliament – not a good scenario for a country suffering from a host of problems, and having weak democratic traditions.

However, the Pakistani voters proved the national and international naysayers wrong.

How did this come about?

Actually, more than fifty percent of the Pakistani voters live in rural areas and another 20 percent or so live in small towns and semi-urban areas. These people, who have been suffering with severe and prolonged power outages, decided to place their bets on an
experienced and tested horse, Nawaz Sharif, instead of taking a chance on a relatively new but incorruptible Imran Khan, the PTI leader.

People’s thinking in rural Pakistan is also very different from that of their counterparts who reside in urban areas. Every village in Pakistan has two or three so-called headmen who decide for the villagers for whom they should vote. Usually, these headmen have
long-established connections with their areas’ members of the parliament -- mostly dynastic politicians -- and the headmen do not change their loyalties easily. They are not concerned whether or not a particular candidate may be better or worse for the country; they only
care about who is good for them and their fiefdoms.

The PML-N candidates, many of them opportunists who quit their parties and joined the PML-N before the election, have established firm connections with the village headmen, or village lackeys as many Pakistanis call them.

However, in big cities, and in the Pashtun belt where people suffered most because of the U.S. war on terror, the PTI’s candidates prevailed.

Oxford-educated Khan’s bold stance on the war on terror, which he calls a war of terror, his struggle for the rule of law, justice, and equality and the eradication of corruption, and his insistence that Pakistan must finally change have endeared him to the Pakistani people.

His vigorous leadership particularly inspired educated people, especially the youth in cities, who used to consider participating in the political process beneath their dignity, and voting in elections an activity for the lower middle classes and rural peasants. But this time, abandoning their past negative approach and enthusiastically participating in the process, they came out in their millions on Election Day and voted for the PTI candidates in their respective constituencies.

Had it not been for pre-election and Election Day vote rigging, results would have been very different and the PTI could have come in a close runner-up. But in spite of all that, the PTI still bagged more votes than any other party in the country except the PML-N.

There were a number of election irregularities in Punjab province, home to more than 50 percent of the voters, and in the country’s largest city Karachi. According to PTI officials, the party was robbed of more than 20 seats in Punjab by the PML-N and about 10 seats in
Karachi by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), which has degenerated from a respected political party into a mafia full of criminals. According to many reports, members of the MQM have been involved in murders, kidnappings, land-grabbing and street robberies.

Since May 12, thousands of PTI supporters have held demonstrations in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Sargodha, Gujranwala and other cities to protest against the alleged vote rigging.

On May 18, Zahra Shahid Hussain, the senior vice president of the PTI, was shot dead in Karachi.

PTI Chairman Imran Khan said the MQM was behind the murder.

“I am shocked and deeply saddened by the brutal killing of Zahra Shahid Hussain, Zahra Apa [sister] to us, in Karachi tonight. It is a targeted act of terror!” Khan said on the day of the murder.

“I hold Altaf Hussain directly responsible for the murder, as he had openly threatened PTI workers and leaders through public broadcasts,” he added, referring to the MQM leader, who has been in self-imposed exile in London since 1992.

“I also hold the British government responsible, as I had warned them about British citizen Altaf Hussain after his open threats to kill PTI workers,” Khan stated.

Besides extremism and terrorism, Pakistan is suffering from a host of other severe problems, such as an unending energy crisis, sluggish economic growth, unemployment and rampant corruption

In such an atmosphere, Islamabad will not be a bed of roses for the Sharif government. And for Sharif, who failed twice to deliver good governance to the country, it will be a herculean task for him to deliver it in his third term.

It will be very difficult for Sharif to steer the Pakistani ship of state away from the troubled waters when it is overloaded with passengers and has a corrupt and incompetent crew.

But one thing working in Sharif’s favor this time is the support expressed by all his rivals for him provided he shows a willingness to solve Pakistan’s key problems, the most pressing of which is terrorism. As a result, he now has been granted a golden opportunity to prove himself to be the capable and truly patriotic leader his supporters claim him to be. Or, he may just remain another self-seeking industrialist who was pushed into politics by a former
military dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Only time will tell.

* Gul Jammas Hussain is a Pakistani journalist based in Tehran.


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