On the Campaign Trail in Pakistan
Pakistanis were scheduled to go to the polls Jan. 8 to choose a new parliament, but the election schedule was adjusted following the Dec. 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto. In December and January, Nicholas Schmidle spent several weeks traveling throughout the country to report on the campaign. Though the elections have been postponed until Feb. 18, his dispatches paint a colorful and much-needed portrait of a country increasingly well-covered in the mainstream press, but too often simplified by stereotypes.
KARACHI, Pakistan—I arrived in Karachi on New Year's Eve, just as the seaside metropolis was limping back to normal after four days of rioting and looting in the aftermath of the Dec. 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The day felt like the first after a blizzard, but instead of snowdrifts blocking driveways, burnt-out vehicles littered the road. More than 900 cars, buses, and trucks were torched in Karachi alone. Shocked by the violence, investors panicked, and when the Karachi Stock Exchange opened Monday morning, it was down almost 5 percent. Long lines of cars streamed out of gas stations, where pumps had been closed for days. Shopkeepers tentatively opened up, keeping their metal shutters halfway down in case they needed to close in a hurry. Then, around lunchtime, a rumor spread through the city that a top politician from Bhutto's rival party in Karachi, the Muttahida Quami Movement, had been assassinated. The already spooked city of 15 million immediately withdrew back into its shell. Gas stations and stores shut down early in anticipation of more violence. Normalcy would have to wait another day. (The rumors proved false.)
That morning, I met Syed Hafeezuddin, a hopeful for the upcoming parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for Jan. 8 but recently postponed until Feb. 18. Hafeezuddin belongs to the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League headed by Nawaz Sharif, known as the PML (Nawaz). (In 2002, Musharraf's supporters created their own faction, the Pakistan Muslim League [Q].) After Bhutto's murder, many of her enraged supporters blamed Musharraf's government for—at least—negligence and failure to provide adequate security for the two-time former prime minister. Some even alleged that Musharraf's role was more direct and nefarious. As a result, looters attacked the offices of the PML (Q) and the pro-Musharraf MQM, burning everything inside and forcing their candidates underground. Meanwhile, Sharif, who rushed to the hospital after Bhutto's murder and who has pledged to topple Musharraf, received a boost both because of his new bond with Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and because Sharif now leads the opposition to Musharraf. "We are the only ones who can still run a public campaign," Hafeezuddin told me.
Hafeezuddin and I headed to Machar ("Mosquito") Colony, a slum built on top of a swamp, where two days earlier, a teenage boy had apparently been shot and killed by paramilitary Rangers. Hafeezuddin wanted to offer a funeral prayer with the family before they buried the teenager. A small fire burned in a mound of trash just behind us, and the slum smelled like a combination of sewage and spoiled fish. When the residents recognized Hafeezuddin from his campaign posters, they began to complain about the lack of electricity, water, and trash removal. "I take one bath a week, if I am lucky," one man said. Hafeezuddin, who is more than 6 feet tall, towered above them and made lofty promises. Then, a few hundred yards away, gunfire rang out. Unsure which direction it was coming from, people scattered and sprinted for cover. Hafeezuddin and I jumped into his car and sped away. No one will be fully insulated from the security risks of the upcoming elections.
Hafeezuddin drove to another spot in the constituency where, the day after Bhutto's assassination, he had organized a gathering in her memory. "I can't leave the PPP alone right now," he said. The PPP is riding a wave of sympathy, and Hafeezuddin knew that he would lose the election if he didn't seize the initiative by leading the agitation against Musharraf and sympathizing about Bhutto's loss. "I've tactfully taken on the PPP by sponsoring events in Benazir's honor and then inviting PPP supporters," he said. "I make them come to my events." A goat walked down the street wearing a T-shirt. "Benazir didn't just belong to the PPP, just like they didn't own the memory of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. We, the people of Pakistan, own the Bhuttos and their memories."
Most pundits and analysts agree that the PPP is poised to win big in the February elections, in large part because of the sympathy vote they are expected to receive. Hafeezuddin understands this all too well, which is why, even while Sharif united with the PPP in demanding that the elections be held on Jan. 8 as planned, Hafeezuddin quietly prayed for a delay. "I need some time to let the sympathy vote die down," he confided. After all, he is contesting a seat in Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, where the Bhuttos have long been powerful.
But the PPP may not win as big in Punjab and the North West Frontier Province as many expect, in large part because of the ethnic dimension that the riots took on. Pakistan is divided into four provinces—Punjab, Baluchistan, the North West Frontier Province, and Sindh—each one dominated by a different ethnic group. Punjab remains the most important when it comes to electoral politics, since its representation in the National Assembly is roughly equal to that of the small provinces combined.
The bulk of the post-assassination violence occurred in Sindh, much of it directed at non-Sindhis, primarily people from Punjab and the North West Frontier Province. Pashtuns from the North West Frontier Province control most of the transport businesses in Pakistan. One transporter I met in Karachi had 190 of his trailers burned on the stretch of highway running through the province. Moreover, the PPP's decision to tap Bhutto's 19-year-old son, Bilawal, as the new head of the party could alienate voters in other provinces who don't subscribe to the dynastic politics sanctioned by Sindhi customs and feudal traditions. And her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who is widely perceived as a sleazy crook, will run the party until Bilawal comes of age. "Zardari will damage the PPP's national appeal," said Hafeezuddin. "They will end up confining themselves to the interior of Sindh."
Did Benazir Bhutto herself sow the seeds of this crisis? In the months before she died, Bhutto focused her election campaign almost entirely in Sindh. Though she never pitched herself as a Sindhi leader or employed the rhetoric of Sindhi nationalism, her exhaustive campaigning gave Sindhis the impression that "one of theirs" was about to take power once again. At her burial, mourners chanted, in Sindhi, "We don't want Pakistan!" Such slogans raised concerns over the possibility of militant Sindhi nationalism re-emerging, as it did during the 1970s and '80s. "Bhutto was killed only because she was a Sindhi woman," said Khaled, a 32-year-old member of Jeay Sindh, a party calling for an independent Sindhi state. In the press conference Zardari gave Dec. 30, he made a point of saying, in Sindhi, "We want Pakistan, We want Pakistan." But has the damage been done?
I left Khaled and drove down a muddy, rutted road in Lyari, the section of Karachi worst hit by the violence. It hadn't rained in months, so the pools of slush in the road were actually sewage. I read chalk graffiti dating back to Bhutto's return from exile on Oct. 18. It said, in Urdu: "Go, Go, to the Karachi Airport, Go!" (Hundreds of thousands of people went, but more than 140 never came home after suicide bombers targeted Bhutto's motorcade.) We arrived at the local PPP office, where roughly 100 women sat on the floor, weeping and reading the Quran in Bhutto's memory. "Oh Benazir, Princess of Heaven, we are sorry that your killers are still alive," they chanted. Afterward, Nasreen Chandio, a PPP stalwart and former member of the national assembly, assessed the impact of Bhutto's murder on the Sindhi people. "Sindhi nationalism has definitely been ignited because people realize that there will be no representation of Sindhis in the federation without Benazir," she said. "The people of Sindh have become orphans."
Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of To Live or to Perish Forever. He is a 2010 International Reporting Project fellow in Russia.