Democracy is more than just fair elections -Benazir Bhutto

Democracy is more than just fair elections -Benazir Bhutto

Democracy is more than just fair electionsBenazir Bhutto

Recently, H.E. Benazir Benazir Bhutto, two-time Prime Minister of Pakistan, was in Nigeria for the recent Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Memorial lecture. This exclusive interview conducted by Musa Aliyu and Tadaferua Ujorha, coursed around the contemporary political struggle in Pakistan, women in Islamic societies, Al-qaeda, as well as the stormy situation in the Middle East and the Gulf. Benazir Bhutto made the insightful remark that democracy is much more than the occasional conduct of fair elections. Excerpts:

You recently said that Islam brought democracy into the world long before any western country, yet today democracy is championed by the West. At what point did the reversal of roles take place, and who or what encouraged it?

Now, one would have to look at Islamic history, and how roles started changing, but certainly in the modern era, we had a long period of colonial rule, we found ourselves in a bipolar world and I think it was the superpower rivalry that encouraged dictatorship in most countries.
With the end of the bipolar world the dawn of democracy began again. Democracy is still in its infancy and there are still many chances ahead to strengthen it as part of a process of ensuring a pluralistic society. But I do feel when I look around the world today that the developed countries, the countries that are at peace with each other, are the democratic countries, and I think that is very important for us for the sake of peace, as well as human dignity, and the rule of law, to go back to the elements of democratic society based on consultation and consensus.

It seems to me that over the years, the context of democracy has changed in terms of its definition.

It depends on the various ways people look at the situation and that certainly is different, and sometimes paternalistic society is the same as the democratic society, and each one of us must make our own ways for a democratic structure. I think the basic element of the democratic society is the empowerment of the ordinary people, and of course the world belongs to God, and God appointed his people as agents, and for us democracy is very much the ingredient as well as the basic political concept, and for us this is the best form of government. For me, democracy is certainly fair elections held by an independent election commission. But democracy is much more than a fair election, it is a pluralistic society in which different parties get hold of power in different districts or states or regions.

As the first woman Prime Minister of an Islamic country, can you reflect on your tenure in power?

The first time that I became Prime Minister, there was a huge hysteria that a woman could not be elected Prime Minister, and we did not have any example on the world scene of a woman ever being elected Prime Minister. I remember when I was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, a fatwa was given by the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia against me, saying that Pakistan’s position in the Islamic world was now endangered. Yemen gave another fatwa saying that the Holy Quran has made reference to the Queen of Sheba.
So, there was a big debate within the Muslim world during my election. But after we crossed the barrier, other Muslim countries also followed suit. We had the election of a woman Prime Minister in Bangladesh, and the election of a woman in Turkey.

Then there was the election of Mrs. Megawati of Indonesia, and now for the first time in some of the states, some of the women are coming out to participate. So, I believe that in a very short time, within the Muslim world, a transformation began to take place following my election, and it is an important transformation. For me, it now promotes gender equality, and I think it’s wrong that the Muslim society should be judged by the state of their women. There has been this continuing question relating to whether the state of the woman is contrary to Islamic principles.

What is the particular agenda your party is following in terms of seeking power in Pakistan?

party is fighting both inside the parliament and outside, to promote democracy, and we are in discussion with other groups and so on.
Our goal is to get fresh elections, and the election commission is constituted of human rights activists, because the judiciary has been intimidated and pressured by the military regime, and it is important for us for fair elections to have an election commission which has human rights activists, and which should hold elections which ensure a prompt vote count and announcements, and not just to count, but the announcement of their count. Because what happened in the last elections was that the count was not announced and it’s the delay that took place that allowed the results to be changed. We would like to see a transfer of power from the military to the civilians. In the two times that I became Prime Minister, we lacked the transfer of power from the military to the civilians. The military did have enormous power though the president who could sack the government, and therefore not a single government of Pakistan since 1985 has completed a term.

So the military must stop being the arbiter of the state of the nation. The people of a country must be the arbiter of their fate, and I know that there are many young officers who share this vision, who would also like to see a professional military, and it’s only a handful of ambitious generals that sometimes act contrary even to the desires of their own institution strive to be in power.

In 1977, as a young woman, you watched your father being hanged, and later in your life you became a Prime Minister, and watched your government being overthrown. What would you say about these experiences?

My father’s government was overthrown, and twice my government was overthrown. We faced either imprisonment, torture, exile or assassination. So in the military almost the same thing happens after each overthrow. Sometimes I feel that unless democracy takes root it’s going to happen again and again. And now we are calling for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because crimes that are committed have never been recorded, they’ve never been exposed, and the public is unaware of what happens when a government is overthrown.

 There are some little bits that come in the newspapers, but it is too little, and to protect future generations, I would like to see a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I think that your government took a very bold stand when the president retired all those officers who had been involved in political activities, but in Pakistan no civilian government has had the power to retire military officers, because the constitution has been made in such a way that it simply lacks the power to do so. You see there are military officials who have got enough money to buy people to switch sides. Some of my people have refused to switch sides. This is not the job of the military. The military must be a clean, good, professional institution.

Earlier you referred to the referendum in Pakistan, and it seems to me that it has certain ridiculous aspects.

You see, under the constitution there’s a procedure of how the president can be elected by the House of Parliament, and there is a procedure that the Army Chief cannot be involved in politics, and that the army chief cannot run for the office of the president. General Musharraf wanted to give himself the level of legitimacy or level of democracy without having it. So he announced a referendum at polling stations without polling agents. When he saw that the political parties were boycotting it, and the turnout was going to be low, then he decided he’s going to have mobile polling stations, and over 93 of these stations were in colleges, hospitals and mobile work, and the television screen will show it that these polling stations were all empty. Without any check it was a very expensive public relations exercise that cost our poor people so much money. The New York Times called it a deeply flawed exercise.

One of the reasons General Musharraf accepted the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was that the Palestinian issue was next to be resolved. But the contrary has been the case. If you were in power would you have seen that as an opportunity for revenge on the Taliban?

I had been the Prime Minister of Pakistan the people of Afghanistan would have been saved the bombing. Their lives would not have been destroyed, but the people of Pakistan after my overthrow, became hostages of the Taliban. During my entire time due to my foreign policy, al-Qaeda never appeared. I know that if they take on the west, the west would take on the Muslim world, and I wanted to save the Muslim world. If I had been Prime Minister of Pakistan, Pakistan would have played a role that could have promoted the brotherhood and understanding between the western and the Muslim world. Unfortunately, the dialogue has broken down and the situation that is now developing is one of great crises. We Muslims need to transform our own society so that we can have leadership and representatives that can conduct world affairs. General Musharraf and his men supported the Taliban till the last minute. They only broke this link when there was an ultimatum to stand up and be counted as friend or foe. But my party in 1998, three years before the World Trade Centre bombing, broke relations with the Taliban.

There is no sympathy today for the Palestinian people in the World community and that pains my deeply when we see casualties. I want to tell you I don’t believe in revenge. I believe in Bismillah-Rahmani-Raheem, which means” In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful.” I think that what we ought to always show is compassion and not revenge.

You mentioned that there should be a distinction between terrorism and Islam, perhaps you could explain this point?

From the media and the public response, we hear a lot of talk about Muslim terrorists. We hear about militant Islam, and I think that this is a misunderstanding about Islam. Islam is not about terrorism and there is an important need for us to distinguish them. For example if there is a problem in Northern Ireland you do not start condemning a religion because some people are using religion as the basis for their political ideals. And I think it is important for us to distinguish between those who use violence to promote their politics, and those whose lands have been occupied, who have a right to fight for their freedom.

How would you assess the political situation in Pakistan now, compared to when you were in power?

Well, my concern and worry about Pakistan is that my exile has led to the rise of religious parties. They could control more of Pakistan in the future, and I think that there is a danger that if this situation continues, then there will be a showdown between the military and the political parties. I say this because it is the military that created these groups. The time has come for those groups to turn on the military, and that confrontation between these parties and the General would be highly explosive. This is because religious parties also have warriors for them. They have irregular trained fighters with them, unlike political parties who don’t. So unless the strength is reversed, the situation in Pakistan will degenerate further, and I hope that it can be avoided because the people of Pakistan are hardworking. The people of Pakistan have made sacrifices and struggled to create a homeland of their own, and the people of Pakistan deserve a better future.

How would you assess the current face-off between the US and Iraq vis-à-vis the position of Pakistan?

Right now, Pakistan is very much against the war. General Musharraf would probably prefer to abstain, and I am not sure how much pressure he could withstand, because Pakistan also needs America. We have a dispute with India and each time there is conflict, America has intervened. So, it is a difficult situation, and I think that the present regime would do its best to try and abstain and resist the pressure.

How would you describe yourself?

I describe myself as a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, someone struggling to make our society better, so that our children can live in a safer world with more dignity.

Women are increasingly being segregated and subjected to unfair treatment in Pakistan, like the case of a woman councillor who was paraded naked, and another raped in a village square on the orders of some powerful men.

my overthrow, there have been incidents where women have been subjected to the most barbaric treatment and it is tragic that the regime has refused to act. I think government has to protect the life, liberty, and honour of the citizens and women must stop being neglected. If men think that they can get away by committing such crimes, they would continue to do so. In my time the government stepped in whenever there was such a situation, and because we stepped in the women felt protected. We have a handful of men who feel that by committing such crimes that they would be punished, and so it was better for them. I feel very sad when I see my own government unable to protect the women of Pakistan who are the daughters of our land.

Do you think there is a link between terrorism and the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

ongoing violence in the Middle East is one that causes great pain and anguish to us in the Muslim world. The Palestinian issue is a matter that has continued for more than half a century, and it has radicalised the Muslim youths. There was a brief halt during the time of the Oslo accord, and there was a brief period of hope that a peaceful resolution would be found, but an assassin’s bullet cut down the life of Prime Minister Rabin, and after that the situation of the Palestinians and the Israelis deteriorated. Ever since the Second World War, international law has recognised the principles of the rights of the occupied people to resist oppression by any means possible including military rule.

However, after the bombing of the WTC, the world community was unable to make a distinction between terrorism and occupation. After the inability of the community to make that distinction in the case of the Middle East, the case of the ongoing violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis, is a destabilising factor in international politics. The Muslim people certainly condemn and criticise the suicide bombings that claimed the lives of innocent civilians. Since then, we see a lack of equal condemnation of the repeated Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory, and the Israeli demolition of homes.