The endlessly chaotic, topsy-turvy narrative of Pakistani politics took another potentially dangerous turn on Tuesday when former president Pervez Musharraf was charged with murder in connection with the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf, who returned to Pakistan last year from self-imposed exile in Dubai and Britain, has denied charges of murder, criminal conspiracy to murder and facilitation of murder. Six other people, including four suspected militants and two senior police officers, were also charged in the case. Musharraf could face the death penalty if convicted.
At the heart of the case lies the accusation that Musharraf, then the country’s president, failed to provide adequate security at a campaign rally for Bhutto in the city of Rawalpindi, where she died in a hail of bullets. Bhutto had herself just returned from a year-long exile to contest for the country’s leadership. Ironically, Musharraf, who claimed that Taliban militants had killed Bhutto, had allowed her to return to Pakistan to participate in the 2008 elections. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, took the mantle of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and won that election in her place, leading to Musharaff’s departure.
Now, almost six years later, Musharraf’s arrest marks a first of sorts – he has the dubious distinction as the first Pakistani army chief (active or retired) to ever be charged with a crime by a civil court. This is quite extraordinary considering that the military has controlled or dominated the country’s political affairs for the majority of its 66 years of existence. "These charges are baseless. We are not afraid of the proceedings,” Musharraf’s attorney, Syeda Afsha Adil told the Agence France-Presse news agency. “We will follow legal procedures in the court."
Michael Kugelman, South Asia Associate for the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, hailed the decision to arrest and charge Musharraf as a “victory for Pakistani democracy.” “It proves that the civilian government is willing and able to hold a former military leader -- and by extension the nation’s most powerful institution – accountable,” he said.
However, Kugelman questioned the motives behind the arrest.“The decision also highlights Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s stubborn desire to pursue a vendetta against the man who overthrew him from power nearly 15 years ago,” he added. “Sharif has good reason to want Musharraf indicted and convicted, but given Pakistan’s array of problems -- rising militancy, economic freefall, damaging flooding -- the timing simply isn’t right. Going after Musharraf now makes Sharif’s priorities seem hopelessly misplaced.“
In a broader context, Musharraf’s legal saga underscores the extreme volatility of Pakistani politics, where leaders, whether or now they were elected or forcibly seized power in a coup, rarely end their terms (or their lives) peacefully. Moreover, Pakistanis at the highest levels of power almost never retire – unless their lives are cut short by a bullet, as in the case of Benazir Bhutto.
Consider Musharaf himself. He came to power in Islamabad in 1999 when, as the chief of the army, he staged a bloodless coup that removed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office. (Sharif later returned to Pakistan and is now the country’s Prime Minister again, having won the May 2013 elections quite handily). Musharraf, after his exile, also returned hoping to lead his party in the elections (he was disqualified from running and faced criminal charges over a number of other issues dating to his reign, including the murder of a Baluchi tribal chief named Nawab Akbar Bugti and his failed attempt to fire the entire senior judiciary of Pakistan).
The woman that Musharraf is accused of facilitating the murder of, Benazir Bhutto, served as Prime Minister for two different terms. Her father, former President and Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (and founder of PPP), was executed by 1977 after General Zia al-Haq, the chief of the army, seized power in Pakistan.
Over the course of Pakistan’s history, the nation’s head of state has shifted from military generals to presidents to prime ministers. Regardless of the title, the head of state of Pakistan cannot expect to enjoy a tranquil existence, nor a long life. Let us first consider Prime Ministers – since the country’s founding in 1947, Pakistan has had 23 PMs, including caretakers who held the position briefly. However, it’s more complicated than that -- Benazir Bhutto served twice as prime minister (1988-1990 and 1993-1996), while the current PM Nawaz Sharif served an amazing four different times. (Had Bhutto not been assassinated in late 2007, she would have likely had a good shot at tying Sharif’s record for holding the top job on four separate occasions).
By comparison, over the same 1947-2013 period, Pakistan’s neighbor and rival India has had 17 prime ministers, with Indira Gandhi serving two separate terms. The United States, meanwhile, has had 12 presidents over that duration (with Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each serving full two terms).
The chaos and turbulence in Pakistan can also be illustrated by the fact that the job of prime minister was abolished on no less than five occasions – typically in connection with a military coup, the imposition of martial law, or by presidential decree. One of these periods lasted almost 13 years between October 1958 and December 1971.
This means that during the 66 years of Pakistan’s existence, the country had no prime minister for more than one-third of that time. Translated, on average, a Pakistani prime minister lasts in office less than two years – just one of the many measures of a country that is hopelessly unstable, corrupt and dominated by an ever-lurking military.
Under the terms of Pakistan’s constitution, a prime minister has a term of five years, but only one (Shaukat Aziz) has ever finished such a period without interruption in office. (However, Aziz only served about three years since he took over for Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who served on an interim basis).
The “end” of a term can come in a variety of ways -- sometimes by violence. Indeed, the first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951 in an incident that remains mysterious as to motive and the lack of a proper investigation by police. In many other cases, the prime minister (if he or she wasn’t executed or murdered) was dismissed or was forced to resign, typically after running afoul with the military or the president (or both).
One prime minister, Nurul Amin, served in office only 13 days in December 1971, on the brink of the civil war in East Pakistan which led to the independence of the new nation of Bangladesh. (Amin was a Bengali). Another former PM, Yusuf Reza Gilani, was removed from office after the supreme court charged him with contempt in connection with a corruption scandal involving his erstwhile boss, Zardari.
As for Pakistan’s Presidents (an office that has largely been ceremonial), Zardari was the only one to fully serve out his entire five-year term. Zardari is still alive, but he soon faces criminal charges in connection with massive corruption and other acts of financial misconduct, having lost his immunity from prosecution.
Some other former Presidents from the past met far worse fates – the first to hold the title Iskander Mirza was deposed by his successor, Mohammad Ayub Khan in 1958. Ayub Khan had a relatively long reign, more than a decade, when he was pressured to resign by his successor, Yahya Khan. Yahya, who took responsibility for Pakistan’s humiliating defeat in the 1971 war that created the new nation of Bangladesh, was forced to resign soon thereafter. Zia al-Haq, the man who deposed Zulfikar Bhutto and later had him executed was himself killed in an airplane crash in 1988 that has never been fully explained.
Now, Pervez Musharraf, facing life imprisonment or execution, is simply the last sad chapter in a long and absurd tradition in Pakistani politics.