PPP Senator Enver Baig: "The assassination of Benazir Bhutto was a great shock for the people of Pakistan"

Posted in Broader Middle East , Pakistan | 27-Jan-08 | Author: Sahabzada Abdus-Samad Khan

Senator Enver Baig (left) with WSN Editor Pakistan Sahabzada Abdus-Samad Khan: "We do not believe in violence."

- Exclusive WSN interview with Senator Enver Baig from the PPP conducted by WSN Editor Pakistan Sahabzada Abdus Samad-Khan -

General elections are scheduled for 18 February 2008 in Pakistan in the midst of much controversy and unrest. Soon after the assassination former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007 in Rawalpindi, the government decided to postpone elections (originally scheduled for 8 January 2008). Domestic and international pressure on President Pervez Musharraf has recently been intensified to adhere to his pledge not to delay the elections further and to ensure that they are free and fair.

Following Ms. Bhutto’s violent death, there was naturally a mass outpouring of grief, especially amongst stalwart supporters of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). It is feared, however, that once the shock of this loss has subsided and the elections have taken place, multiple fissures within the senior ranks of the party will emerge, especially regarding the controversial Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of the late Ms. Bhutto. Following the assassination, Mr. Zardari effectively claimed the leadership of the party based on the Will and Testament of his wife Benazir Bhutto (the Will itself has not been offered for public scrutiny and its authenticity is contested by detractors). The Will is supposed to designate her son, Bilwal Bhutto Zardari, to succeed her as Chairman of the PPP once he has completed his university education, leaving the Co-Chairman, Mr. Zardari as acting party chief. This might be cause for resentment amongst some long serving members of the party. One senior PPP leader, Mr. Aitzaz Ahsan, has decided to opt out of politics for the time being. His ostensible reason for doing so is that he does not feel that the elections will be free and fair and he insists on the restoration of the pre-3 Nov. 2007 Judiciary, but some believe that his decision is also based on misgivings regarding Mr. Zardari.

I had the privilege of interviewing Senator Enver Baig for WSN regarding the current situation. Senator Baig is senior member of the Pakistan People’s Party and head of its Diplomatic Affairs Committee.

WSN: The PPP is widely regarded as the most broad-based major political party in Pakistan, with strong grassroots support in most provinces. Despite being the backbone of the democratic movement in the country for decades, the party leadership is accused of being itself undemocratic. The niece of the late Ms. Bhutto even accused the leadership of “dynastic cronyism”. How is this to be reconciled with democratic norms?

Sen. Baig: It is wrong to say that the PPP is an undemocratic party for the simple reason that only last year we had democratic elections. Every member of the party holding a position has been elected to that position. Not only have there been elections within the Pakistani chapter but also within the branches of the PPP internationally. We appointed an Election Commissioner who traveled to the USA and Canada and to other chapters around the world to held elections there. Regarding the comment by the niece of Ms. Bhutto, please remember that before the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged, he appointed his daughter, Benazir Bhutto to lead the party. At the time he could have even appointed his son Murtaza Bhutto, but he did not do so because he recognized that she possessed political charisma. Ms. Bhutto carried out her duties as Chairperson very intelligently and courageously until her assassination on the 27th of December 2007. Therefore we feel the appointment of Ms. Bhutto by her late father was absolutely correct and it produced results at the end of the day. I would prefer not to go into details regarding her niece because there is a family feud going on and I would rather refrain from commenting on their internal family matters.

WSN: Following the tragic loss of Ms. Bhutto, the power vacuum within the PPP needed to be rapidly filled in order to demonstrate resilience and solidarity within the party. Given the stresses and strains on the party from within and without, how will the present leadership structure survive over the next few years, i.e., until the day the young and untested Bilawal Bhutto Zardari enters politics upon graduation from Oxford?

Sen. Baig: Yes, I would agree that we are passing through difficult times in our party’s history. There is a vacuum created by the assassination. This was a tremendous loss - not only for the party - but also for the people of Pakistan. Let me be loud and clear about one thing: this is not a party created by a dictator or a general. It is a grassroots political party. After the late Zulifqar Ali Bhutto, the founder, was murdered - I would term that hanging a “judicial murder” - people used to say that People’s Party would disintegrate. It survived because it had strong foundation. Ms. Bhutto carried it forward very well. Now after her murder, again there is talk within certain sections that the party might disintegrate. We may have a short turbulent period, but I think we will overcome this turbulence and we hope in the days and months to come, the PPP will be much stronger than it is today.

WSN: Your own colleague, Mr. Aitzaz Ahsan (who was until recently a prominent PPP member of parliament and was formerly a federal minister in a PPP-led government) is spearheading the movement to reinstate the pre-3 November 2007 Judiciary. How do you explain the fact that he is not receiving nearly as much vocal support from the PPP as he has from the legal community and the general public?

Sen. Baig: The PPP makes it very clear that it is not fighting for individuals but for the restoration of the Constitution as on the 2nd November (i.e., before Mr. Musharraf imposed this emergency rule on the 3rd of November 2007). We want everything to be backtracked as of 2nd November. We are not specifically saying restore the judges, but when we want the whole system to go back to November 2nd; if this takes place, the restoration of the judges is automatic as it is the foremost issue. General Musharraf‘s proclamation order to impose the emergency was obviously issued illegally. He did this not by exercising his powers as President of Pakistan – had he done that he would not have been able to sack the judges – he did it under the garb of the Army chief. In other words he toppled himself, because the Army chief basically comes under the Minister of Defence, and under the President of Pakistan. He staged a coup against himself. Aitzaz Ahsan is a very respected senior member of the party. He is also the President of the Bar Association, and he is right in his way because he has to be specific in the position that he is holding. Please remember that the late Ms. Bhutto said that we want the restoration of the Constitution as that means the whole structure comes back, including the judges. So there is no difference of views with Mr. Ahsan; the destination is the same but the route is different.

WSN: As you know, the most formidable threat to Pakistan’s internal security from the late 1980s through the mid-90s was posed by the ethnic violence that raged in Karachi at the time. The brunt of the armed conflict was between militant Sindhis, largely supporters of the PPP, and MQM supporters (the Muttahida Qaumi Movement party that represents immigrants who originally moved from India during partition). The fighting was so intense at one point that the security forces had to deploy APCs and tanks in the city to control the situation. Immediately following the recent assassination, there was widespread unrest in Karachi, but fortunately the ethnic conflict was not reignited. All parties, especially the MQM, are thought to be much more heavily armed today than they were twenty years ago. What measures is your party taking to avoid violent confrontation?

Sen. Baig: Whether I like it or not, the MQM is our opponent in Sindh province, and particularly in urban areas. There were problems between PPP and MQM-supporters into the 90s. In fact, 1995 was the most violent year in the last three decades as far as ethnic violence is concerned – the total number of lives lost in ’95 was about 3,500. Unfortunately, in ’95, I was also a victim of that ethnic strife. I lost my grandson on the 11th of June ’95 in the Clifton area of Karachi when some MQM activists attacked my son-in-law’s car. My daughter and son-in-law received multiple bullet wounds but they survived. Unfortunately my 1 year and 7 month old grandson did not survive. I will remember 1995 as the worst year for as long as I live. It is true that the MQM had a militant wing, and over the past five years, ever since Mr. Musharraf held the last elections in 2002, I have to state with deep regret, that since he is an Urdu-speaking general, he had very close interaction with the MQM on the basis of shared ethnicity. Even today he has an MQM governor in the province of Sindh. They have become strong, financially and otherwise in the last five years. But as regards the future, the People’s Party does not believe in violence; it does not have a militant wing and it does not believe in revenge. In the forthcoming elections, I am 100% sure that the PPP will form a government in Sindh. We will have a working relationship with the local governments, which are all presently MQM and will continue to do so since the next local body elections were held in ‘04 or ’05. That means that they will continue to control the local bodies for a year or two until the next such elections take place. We do not want to rock the boat; we will lend all local support to the Nazims so that the people of Sindh do not suffer in terms of development work. If there is infighting between the PPP and the MQM, neither of the parties would lose but the people on the ground would suffer. We are therefore determined not rock the boat unless there is some sort of an aggressive attitude from our opponents. We are ready to work with them for the basic reason that in our province we have many serious problems such as lack of health care and education. We want to concentrate all our energies to on these problems rather than on infighting. So we hope to work with them peacefully and hope that we have the same kind of attitude from the MQM.

WSN: There is much speculation as to who was behind the recent (post-assassination) lawlessness in many parts of the country, especially in Karachi. What is your party’s view on this matter; as also on the reason for why initially there was scant presence of security forces to control the situation?

Sen. Baig: Ms. Bhutto was no ordinary person within the country or internationally. I think her assassination was a great shock to the people of Pakistan. I am certain that even those who hated the People’s Party wept for her. I also know that even in GHQ (General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army) senior Army officers were saddened; their families and households cried. I know this for sure because some of them spoke to me on this issue. When people like you and me were saddened and shocked, can you imagine the shock of a PPP worker on the ground, who may have been with the party for 30 or 40 years? People were angry; they had gone mad. I don’t blame them – it’s a normal human reaction. They were angry and burnt whatever came in their way. But I must give full marks to my leadership. On the very third day, we held a press conference in Larkana at which Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, the Co-Chair, appealed to the people of Sindh and Punjab to please control their emotions, to remember that we are passing through a difficult period and that since we have elections coming up, we do not want to give any pretext to the regime to postpone the elections owing to this violence. Today we are continue to appealing to our workers to show restraint and calm so that the regime has no excuse for postponing the elections again beyond the 18th of February. As a result things have subsided. We do not believe in violence. The People’s Party’s motto is to provide food shelter and housing to the poor. We want people to be educated and good health-care. We want a healthy Pakistan because that is the only way for the nation to progress and that is what we have lacked or the last 60 years. Unfortunately, in this country if anybody has served one full term, it was the late Mr. Bhutto in the ’70s. It is thanks to the work he did in those five years – ’72 to ‘77 – that we are enjoying a vote bank in 2008. Ms. Bhutto carried that vote bank with her over the years and even today it has not been dented. It may even have increased. That is what great political leadership gives; Mr. Bhutto gave the people a lot. If we go into rural Pakistan today, even people in their 60s and 70s remember him. Every village in this country remembers him. Some say that he gave us schools, others gas, canals, roads or electricity. Ever since that time, we have not had a genuine political party completing a single term; unlike present PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid), which was supported, created and nourished by a military dictator. Mr. Musharraf admits that he created this party in his book “In the Line of Fire”. Only a couple of days ago on BBC, while addressing a question regarding the rigging of elections, he did not deny that PML-Q is his party; he should have said that he does not belong to any party.

WSN: The PPP’s insistence on a UN probe (as opposed to the ongoing investigation by Scotland Yard) into the assassination underscores deep divisions within Pakistan. At present, the conditions that led to the UN Security Council authoring such a probe into the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri are non-existent, i.e., unqualified support of two permanent members of the Security Council (the US and France), and strong suspicions in some quarters that Syria was involved. This issue could have grave repercussions for the entire region. Given that such strong international backing is unlikely in the Bhutto case, would you care to comment on the rationale behind the request for the UN to investigate the circumstances surrounding the assassination?

Sen. Baig: We have absolutely no confidence in the Pakistani probe team. Since the time of the assassination the regime has issued four of five different statements on the assassination; they sometimes changed them every 48 hours. This shows that they have no clue as to what is happening. All evidence at the crime scene was washed away within two hours by the local fire brigade. No arrests have been made, nor have any suspects been arrested to date. Therefore we feel that an international probe by the United Nations is required. Mr. Musharraf said a couple of days ago that he blames Al-Qaeda for the assassination. Two days later the CIA Chief stated that he has credible evidence that Al-Qaeda is involved in the murder of Ms. Bhutto. Al-Qaeda is an international organization. The UN had given a mandate to the United States to go after Al-Qaeda, which is why they are in Afghanistan and probably even in Iraq. If the United Nations can give the United States and other world powers the mandate to go after Al-Qaeda and when the American CIA Chief is saying that Al-Qaeda is involved and if the People’s Party is demanding a probe, why are we being denied an investigation? I would like an answer from the UN. They have absolutely no justification to refuse our request. As far as Scotland Yard is concerted, they have a very limited mandate. Obviously nobody can investigate a case without being provided some evidence and documentation. Unfortunately we don’t see the investigation by Scotland Yard as being of any help. Also, since a low ranking Pakistani official heads the investigation, and knowing the arm-twisting that goes on in Pakistani political culture, we feel the investigation and the report, when it is released, can be manipulated by the regime. I have no confidence in the authorities. After all, no political assassination case in the history of Pakistan has ever been solved or any facts revealed to the public going back all the way to Liaquat Ali Khan, very first Prime Minister of Pakistan who was assassinated at the same spot as Ms. Bhutto. That case was also investigated by Scotland Yard, but to no effect.

WSN: Thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to share your views with WSN.