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  July 27, 2001  

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Pakistan reworks an election revolution
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - A new political leadership is emerging in Pakistan, born of local elections being held under a revised system that will allow fresh faces to fill the vacuum left by departing veterans.

A number of political stalwarts are abroad in the face of corruption charges, many politicians are under trial within the country and even more have already been convicted by the military regime's National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and debarred from politics for 21 years.

Alliances and preparations are being finalized across the country for the fifth and final round of local elections to elect chief mayors (for city governments) and mayors (for district councils) on August 2. The elections are a part of a devolution plan to place increased importance on politics at the local, rather than the national level, marking a significant change in the country.

The fourth phase of the local elections was held in the first week of July in the 30 districts of the country to establish district councils. At the same time, elections were held in four major cities - Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar - to establish city governments.

The elections are the initiative of the National Reconstruction Bureau, which was established by the present regime to redraw the political map of the country. The results announced to date by the Election Commission show that a fundamental change has already begun in national politics.

Since the elections are being held on a non-party basis, most of the elected councillors come from an independent background. Political parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam), the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf and the Awami National Party (ANP) have covertly supported candidates, but no one party has taken a majority in any district council or city government to be able to influence the election of chief mayors or mayors.

As a result, political parties have started forging alliances at the local level rather than at the national level. For instance, in Lahore the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) formed a marriage of convenience with the Jamaat-i-Islami, the premier fundamentalist party of the country and arch-rival of the PPP and PML (Nawaz).

But in Karachi, the Jamaat-i-Islami joined hands with the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam), and the PPP, PML (Nawaz) and ANP have joined hands and are the rivals of the JI in Karachi.

Although it is the first time that parties have made alliances irrespective of their ideological background, the situation is similar to that in 1985 in the non-party based national elections held under the military regime of late General Zia ul-Haq, which saw the demise of many old-guard politicians and the arrival of new and naive ones. As the then largest political party in the country, the PPP led by Benazir Bhutto, boycotted the elections, people preferred to vote according to their community and ethnic backgrounds, and candidates won on the basis of money and community support. They were either powerful landlords or capitalists and most of them were new political entrants.

Former prime minister Mohammed Khan Junejo, former premier Nawaz Sharif his brother and former chief minister Shabaz Sharif were new names on the scene and they emerged as the new political force in the country, and helped revive Pakistan's founding party, the Pakistan Muslim League - with the support of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence - as a rival to the left-wing PPP.

The current local elections are crucial as, according to the National Reconstruction Bureau's devolution plan, all powers will now revolve around the newly elected mayors and chief mayors. The entire state machinery, including education, health, civic bodies and police, will be administrated by these functionaries. And since the power will circulate at this level, the future course of politics at the national and provincial assemblies will be determined by these forces representing the people in local bodies. The military regime, then, is paving the way for a new leadership to rule the country in place of the many prominent politicians who have been booted out of the political mainstream.

Benazir Bhutto and her spouse Asif Zardari face a number of charges from the NAB. Asif Zardari has been in state custody for several years on corruption charges. Bhutto lives in Dubai and London and refuses to return to the country to face possible jail. Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shabaz are now exiled indefinitely in Saudi Arabia and are not allowed to even issue political statements as a result of a secret deal between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

In addition to these high-profile names, there is a long queue of politicians either in NAB custody or already in jail and barred from politics for 21 years. The NAB is headed by an active duty military officer and is prosecuting those accused of willful default on bank loans and corrupt practices. The NAB has attracted criticism for holding accused people without charge and, in some instances, access to legal counsel.

According to a list issued by the NAB, out of a total of 259 cases initiated against politicians up to May 2, investigations have been completed in 55, with 180 still under investigation and 24 closed due to a lack of evidence. Among the politicians against whom investigations are in progress, two are former prime ministers, 13 former chief ministers, 53 members of national assemblies, seven senators, 66 members of provincial assemblies and seven others. Of them, 73, including one former prime minister, belonged to the PML (Nawaz), 54 belonged to the PPP and 41 to other parties.

This new scenario will help the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf to develop and strengthen its own team of politicians, such as Field Marshal Ayub Khan. He first targeted old-style politicians through the EBDO (Elective Bodies Disqualification Order). Subsequently, he has developed his team and organized them under the flag of the Pakistan Muslim League. General Zia ul-Haq did a similar thing in preparing a new team of politicians under the Pakistan Muslim League (Junejo) - history is indeed repeating itself.

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