Monday, February 15, 2010, Safar 30, 1431 A.H   ISSN 1563-9479
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The News International Pakistan

 Obama's victory and lessons for Pakistan's politicians
By Ayesha Ijaz Khan
"They said this day would never come," Obama said in his victory speech in Iowa early this year, when he defeated Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses. Detractors said that the Democrats had made a mistake. That Obama was an inexperienced political nobody and only a nationally known name like Clinton could defeat the Republican incumbents. Not so. Obama has won a landslide victory. More importantly, he has defeated the divisive name-calling politics of Karl Rove that the Republicans relied on successfully in Bush's fight against Kerry in 2004, and substituted it with David Axelrod's inclusive message of hope and change.

Can we learn a lesson in Pakistan? Yes, we can. The Republicans lost the elections, just like the PML-Q lost the elections. In both countries, 2008 became the year when the people delivered a resounding verdict against the incumbents. Democracy works.

The trouble is though that in Pakistan the parties who contest elections in the name of democracy are averse to practice it in their own party structures. While in America, we witnessed tough contests in both the Republican and Democratic parties for the nomination of the presidential candidates, in Pakistan, the mantle simply passes to next of kin with no hint of protest from the party members. It does not seem to matter if there are more popular leaders present within the party. It does not seem to matter if reputations of the next of kin are sound or not. It does not seem to matter even whether they have any experience in running the affairs of state. As an ex-People's Party worker recently confided to me, "the internal party meetings," he said, "are little different from a Corps Commander's meeting."

I say this of course not to advocate a military takeover, which would be absolutely fatal for Pakistan. The answer to troubled democratic structures is more transparency and more debate, essentially more democracy, not less. Many in America claimed that because the Democrats had taken too long to decide on their nominee for president, the Republicans would win. McCain, they said, had had more time to consolidate his appeal and lobby for votes, while the Democrats had publicly fought among themselves. Obama criticized Hillary and Hillary pounded Obama. But as we saw that kind of debate and discussion not only leads to choosing the best candidate, it also earns the party respect in the eyes of the people.

That is why it was so exciting when Aitzaz Ahsan, without leaving the PPP, had questioned its stand on the judiciary. Alas, there was someone in our political parties who was declaring a bit of an independence! This strengthens democracy. It does not weaken it. What weakens democracies is a lack of questioning, compromising national good for personal gain, and switching party allegiances, not on principle (which would be welcome and a good thing) but because luck has run out for that particular party boss so time to bend over backwards for another.

But where were the voices in the PPP (other than Mr Ahsan's) that publicly condemned the party for its u-turn on the judiciary? Is patronage so engrained in the culture of our political parties that principle is something to be forgotten, discarded at the first opportunity?

And where are the voices of the women representatives now that, horror of horrors, Israrullah Zehri has been awarded the office of a minister? As Zainub Razvi correctly pointed out in her letter to this newspaper, a man who justifies such brutal killings (I refuse to call them "honour killings") should be barred from holding public office. Yet he has been given the office of a minister, and no outcry from the PPP women? This, at least, I am sure would not have happened had Mohtarma been alive.

She could have done more for women's rights in her two terms as prime minister. That is true. But, at the very least, she consistently condemned the perpetrators of violence against women. When the scandal broke on Munir Akram (Pakistan's former representative to the UN) alleging that he had beaten his girlfriend in New York, Ms Bhutto was one of the first to condemn it, even though it was conveyed to her that Mr Akram was one of the few Sindhis who had risen to the uppermost echelons of the foreign service, and that Mohtarma should perhaps qualify her condemnation. She refused however to mince her words on the issue. Had she been alive, I have no doubt that she would not have rewarded a man of Mr Zehri's views with the office of a minister.

Is there any woman in her party who will raise her voice on this? Senator Yasmin Shah must be supported on this issue by all women in the assembly and the Senate, across party lines. How can we allow a man who justifies the live burial of women to become more powerful? I would have appealed to Nafisa Shah, having been impressed with her columns before she was elevated to the member of national assembly status, but her last piece, distinguishing morality and politics has left me with little hope in her taking a principled stand. Can one look to Shazia Marri then? She has struck me as a politician with a greater propensity for the truth. Is it time for you to distinguish yourself further Ms Marri?

Failing that, can the women of Pakistan look to Bakhtawar or Asifa to take a stand? It won't be the first time that a First Daughter would have taken a stand against a president father's flawed policy. Jenna Bush spoke critically of Bush's invasion of Afghanistan and Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary, even considered becoming a human shield in protest of the war in Iraq. More recently, the very popular first lady of California, Maria Shriver, openly supported Barack Obama in his candidacy for president, notwithstanding the fact that her husband is a Republican campaigning for McCain.

If uninterrupted democracy runs its course in Pakistan, it will have to become issues-based and politicians and heirloom aspirants who want a future in the country's government must become sensitive to that. They must declare their independence from the politics of patronage. Or else, face defeat in the next election and perhaps oblivion in the future.

The writer is a London-based lawyer turned political commentator. Website:

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