Category Archives: Corruption

Pakistan votes to end military rule under shadow of violence

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Pakistan’s 2008 election came soon after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and saw more murders and bombings. But voters turned out. The result was historic. A military ruler democratically removed and his supporters accepting the result with more good grace than they were generally given credit for, leading to the first peaceful transition from one civilian government to another in 2013, although not, sadly, to the end of the violence and corruption that continue to dog the country. Here’s my account of polling day in Lahore.

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The old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Lahore 18.02.2008

A stretch of Cooper Road is cordoned off by the police and the polling stations, one for men and a separate one for women, have to be approached on foot.

The parties have set up stalls to check off their voters’ names as they arrive, often delivered by vans driven by political activists. Lahore is the Muslim League Nawaz’s stronghold and the PML-N is doing brisker business than the People’s Party, the PPP. But, at 9.30am, voting is slow, as is also reported to be the case in other areas.

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PPP activists check voters’ names Photo: Tony Cross

PPP party worker Farhat Hussein believes that people are afraid there will be bombs or shootings.

“Violence is the main problem,” he says. “You know, one candidate was killed and the people of Lahore is afraid.”

Last night in the city, PML-N candidate Chaudhry Asif Ashraf was shot dead, along with his driver and secretary, while three other party workers are still in a serious condition in hospital. Voting in four constituencies has been postponed because of the death of a candidate. One of those constituencies was to have been contested by Benazir Bhutto, whose assassination sparked fears of a major bombing campaign.

During the campaign most of the violence was restricted to the tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the secular, Pashtun-nationalist Awami National  Party has been the  principal target.

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PML-Q activists on polling day in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

The worst attack was on Saturday in Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal agency, where 47 people were killed and many more injured. Most of them are reported to have been PPP supporters who were attending an election rally.

In NWFP dozens of public employees tried to get out of their obligation to man polling-stations. They’ve been told that they must find replacements or face disciplinary action. And many retired police and soldiers are reluctant to take up the offer to help with security. They consider the pay – one-and-a-half euros a day – insufficient compensation for the risk.

Here in Lahore police claim to have arrested 37 would-be bombers over the last three months, while in Hyderabad, Sindh province, they claim to have caught three yesterday.

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Voting at a women’s polling centre in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

No wonder the desire for peace is on many voters’ minds. A chatty group of women, some wearing hijab, say that they voted PML-N. Razia Mumtaz says that she and her friends want change.

“We want to elect people who work for our country and for better system, change the system, for the safety of the people,’ she says. “First of all, for the safety of our country.”

Most voters seem to expect some electoral fraud by the outgoing government. PML-N supporter Osama Ahmed is typical.

“They have already said in the newspaper ‘We have won’. What else I can say? Everybody knows there’s going to be something fishy-fishy.”

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PML-N supporters parade a lion on the back of a lorry – and RFI tries to record its roar – during the 2008 election campaign in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Aref Lateef, who also supports Nawaz Sharif – “he lies less, the others lie more” –is resigned to the idea.

“Pakistan has a tradition of vote-rigging, it was always rigged. Except once, I think that when East Pakistan broke away [to become Bangladesh] at that time it was not rigged but they did not give the power to the party who was in majority.”

Throughout the day, people report that they or their families are not on the electoral register, although it’s impossible to tell if this is due to their negligence or official malpractice.

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Inside the old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

If the PPP is to be believed, there’s also a danger that voters will turn up and find that their polling station isn’t where they expected it to be. In Punjab the party has complained about 398 “ghost” polling stations, moved to between four and seven kilometres’ distance from where they were initially sited. The PPP claims they will be used to provide over a million fake votes.

If there’s a Benazir cult in PPP strongholds, like Faisalabad and Sindh province, the principal object of veneration in Lahore is Nawaz. The PML-N’s symbol is a tiger, often transformed into a lion by the party faithful who wear big-cat badges on their shirts or waistcoats. Yesterday the party sent a truck with a lion in a cage on the back touring the city. The wild beast can stand equally for the party and its leader, so Osama Ahmed, who seems to have a penchant for natural history, declares: “Better a man-eating lion than cannibals!”

Another PML-N supporter, Sayed Shaufiq Hussain, sees Nawaz as a local boy persecuted by Musharraf.

“We have our hero from our society – number one – from our region – number two – and he was competent. One thing was very bad when he was sent in Saudi Arabia forcefully. So that’s why people are still with him. He had done a lot of jobs for our society, especially for the Lahori people, so that’s why we are with him.”

More than one Nawaz-admirer praises his backing for Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme. In a poor area far from the city centre, Liaquat says that the bomb is essential for the nation’s security, although he doesn’t see any immediate threat.

“Nobody will attack on Pakistan because we are safe,” he declares. “And we are brave. And we are Muslim.”

Musharraf’s collaboration with the US war on terror also comes under fire. Sitting astride a motorbike, Sohel Iqbal refuses to say who he voted for. But it certainly wasn’t the president’s party, as becomes clear when he explains his top priority for the new government.

“Independent foreign policy, independent. Not to depend on America or things like that. All the decisions should be taken within the country.”

Voting picks up as the day progresses. By the evening the opposition are convinced that they have won. Their supporters take to riding around the city cheering and, in some cases, firing into the air, a form of celebration which leads to several arrests.

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Moghul-era lattice-work in Lahore’s old city Photo: Tony Cross

To hear my radio report for RFI on election day in Lahore click here

Military ruler Musharraf’s party bows out ‘with grace’ after 2008 election defeat

Credit where credit’s due, it was historic that the PML-Q, a party that was not overburdened with principles, accepted the 2008 election defeat and that General Pervez Musharraf didn’t hang on much longer. Musharraf is still being dragged through the courts but Pakistan, for the moment at least, no longer seems under danger of a new military coup, following one elected government succeeding another in the 2013 election.

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Mushahid Hussain concedes defeat Photo: Tony Cross

Mushahid Hussain knows how to make a virtue of necessity.

His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, has suffered a humiliating defeat in the election. It has gone from government to an isolated minority in the National Assembly. Its share of the vote may not have fallen much but its share of seats in parliament has been slashed.

Several party leaders, such as party president Chaudhry Shujat Hussain and his brother Pervaiz Elahi, are no longer MPs. Former Railway Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmad, a key figure in the previous government, managed to lose two seats, Pakistani law permitting candidates to stand in two constituencies in one election.

But Mushahid Hussain handles interviews with the aplomb of the journalist-turned-politician that he is and assures reporters that the PML-Q will be the first party in the history of Pakistan to “accept the election outcome with grace”.

Let the PPP and the PML-N form a government, he says. “We want to play our democratic role in the opposition, as a vibrant and robust opposition, an issue-oriented opposition.”

Apart from the press, the PML-Q’s rather scruffy headquarters is largely empty now, after a meeting of the party’s MPs and its more numerous failed candidates earlier today.

“The mood was upbeat, the morale was high,” Mushahid Hussain insists, although Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, who is hovering in the background, doesn’t appear to be brimming over with joy.

Mushahid Hussain is a Senator and Secretary General of PML-Q. Before the election he predicted that the PPP would invite his party to join a coalition, an option that Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, flirted with for a brief moment. Now it’s clear that PML-Q is banished from the ministries.

Hussain warns the new government against confrontation with President Pervez Musharraf, whose coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999 gave rise to the split between the N and the Q and the latter becoming the governing party.

“We don’t want any destabilisation. We don’t want any polarisation. We don’t want any new fronts opened between parliament and president.”

Although Hussain says he hopes the new government will last its full tenure, the PML-Q clearly hopes to profit from the political turmoil that is likely to hit the new government, both in its relations with the president and in relations between the biggest parties in its ranks.

Meanwhile, PML-Q needs to hold onto its members. Its leaders have appealed to the PPP not to poach from its ranks.

“This has been a tradition in Pakistan. We hope the norm has changed now because let’s not repeat old mistakes,” says Hussain but he laughs when reminded that his own party wasn’t shy of the practice in the past.

So far as government policy is concerned, Hussain doesn’t expect big changes. He calls for a “consensual” foreign policy. Musharraf’s collaboration with Washington may be unpopular with the voters, but that doesn’t mean that the new government will change it.

“That foreign policy has not been criticised by the opposition, as yet. The People’s Party and PML-N have not criticised the fundamental contours of Mr Musharraf’s foreign policy,” he points out with a courteous smile.

Lawyers fight on for chief justice Chaudhry’s reinstatement and Musharraf’s departure

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Pakistani lawyers demand the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry, fired by Pervez Musharraf Photo: Tony Cross

Another question on which the government’s supporters may face disappointment is the fate of the judges sacked by Musharraf last year.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry’s dismissal, last March the ninth, started a long battle between the president and the legal profession. Chaudhry was later reinstated … and then sacked again.

Later, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency, the president sacked about 60 judges who refused to take a new oath of office.

Nine months of noisy and emotional protests, usually ending in black-suited lawyers being teargassed and beaten by the police, played a major role in discrediting Musharraf and his allies in government.

But the PPP has not committed itself to reinstating Chaudhry or the other judges. Nor has Zardari made any promises to that effect since the election, even though one of his party’s best-known members is lawyers’ leader Aitzaz Ahsan, who’s still under house arrest in Lahore.

So the lawyers are still demonstrating. At Islamabad’s district court, a group of them sit in front of a giant photo of one of their colleague’s suffering the attentions of a zealous police officer.

They say they’re optimistic, especially since PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has said that the judges must be reinstated immediately. Since the election, Sharif has made surprise appearances at lawyers’ demonstrations and even proposed direct action to place the judges back in office. Now he says he wants an executive order, like the one that dismissed them, to reverse the damage.

Nobody seems too clear as to how this would work, however.

Should they argue that the order which sacked the judges was unconstitutional, on the grounds that Musharraf didn’t bother to consult parliament about it?

Or does the president have to issue a new one? And does that necessitate getting rid of the present incumbent?

The demonstrators’ legal training doesn’t seem to be much help in this case. But there’s no doubt what Islamabad Bar Council member Malek Lateef Kokar favours from an emotional point of view.

“A new president might come,” he hopes. “This president, better sense may prevail on him just at this right moment. Better sense may prevail and he may do what the people of Pakistan like and what they want. They have given a clear mandate against the President Musharraf. The honourable way is that he must restore the judiciary and quit.”

The lawyers, who by now must be as adept at chanting as pleading a case, segue from slogans in support of the judges to “Go, Musharraf, go!”

To hear my radio report for RFI on the lawyers’ protests click here

To read and listen to my report for RFI from Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here

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In rural Pakistan politics is still a violent, feudal, family business

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Support for the Pakistan People’s Party has been drastically reduced since it came out in the lead in the 2008 election. But the province of Sindh remains its stronghold. When I visited a rural constituency I found both the PPP and the PML-Q, which supported military ruler Pervez Musharraf, represented by political dynasties, relying on traditional loyalties from the poor to elect wealthy landowners. With corruption charges and a failure to tackle poverty along with ongoing politico-religious violence, the PPP in government proved a disappointment to many of its voters.

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Street traders in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Thatta 20.02.2008

Buses honk, motorised rickshaws putter and cars and lorries rattle through the centre of Thatta. Mechanics hammer and weld in small workshops. A shopkeeper struggles to open a metal shutter and start business for the day.

Modernity has brought its noise and its pollution to interior Sindh, the rural heartland of the Pakistan People’s Party, the PPP.

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Soomar prepares to sell milk in Thata Photo: Tony Cross

But Thatta has kept its traditions, too. Street-vendor Soomar stands in a side-road ladelling milk from large churns to small ones, ready to carry it around town on his skinny shoulders.

Another tradition here, as in much of Pakistan, is a fractious political scene. Monday’s election may have escaped the major bombings that were feared but about 20 people were killed throughout the country on the day.

One of them was Thatta’s assistant presiding officer. He was shot by a police officer. At least the crime doesn’t seem to have been politically motivated. The officer of the Islamic republic is reported to have been drunk.

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A donkey cart struggle through the traffic in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Another death, yesterday, was political. PPP workers who were celebrating victory in one of the Thatta seats clashed with supporters of the losers, the PML-Q. One PPP member was killed.

On the busy main road, a group of People’s Party supporters say the shoot-out was an unwarranted attack. In his party’s local headquarters, which are almost deserted today, Safraz Shah Shirazi, a former PML-Q National Assembly member, claims that the PPP men provoked the attack by noisily bursting into the homes of his party members.

He adds that he condemns the violence that has taken place during the election.

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Safraz Shah Shirazi Photo: Tony Cross

Shirazi didn’t stand this time but his brothers stood for the two Thatta National Assembly seats … one successfully, the other being the loser in the constituency where yesterday’s confrontation took place.

Three other Shirazis stood for the Provincial Assembly and the top district official, the nazim, is also a relation.

So another Pakistani tradition is alive and well in Thatta … a tendency for one or two families to dominate a district’s political life.

PPP activists here denounce this as “feudal”, although their party owes much of its influence in Sindh to the fact that PPP leaders, starting with the Bhuttos, own huge landed estates in the province.

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Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

In Thatta newly-elected Provincial Assembly member Abdul Jaleel Memon comes from a PPP dynasty.

“My grandfather was elected in 1970 – he was one of the founder-members of the party – and he was elected Provincial Assembly member from this same constituency which I have been elected,” he explains. “My father was elected from this constituency. This is our third generation in People’s Party and we are committed to this party.”

Jaleel’s home resembles a feudal court today, with dozens of local men come to pay their respects. In front of the house, cloth stretched from poles provides shade from the sun for visitors, guards and a couple of cars. Inside the main room is packed with congratulators, favour-seekers and ingratiators.

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Local people at the home of Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

Jaleel promises to tackle poverty with industrial development.

“The main problem in Thatta is employment,” he says and promises that his party will revive a project for a 5,000-megawatt power-plant, which he claims was planned by the Benazir Bhutto government but shelved by its successor.

To hear my radio report from Thatta in 2008 for RFI click here

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Sassi Paleejo Photo: Tony Cross

In her large house just outside town, another newly-elected Provincial Assembly member, Sassi Paleejo, is in her element. Brightly-dressed and weighed down by garlands of flowers, she, too, is holding to court to dozens of well-wishers. In between greeting visitors and an interview with a TV crew, she boisterously leads the crowd in chants of ‘Bhutto zinda hai!” and “People’s Party zindabad!”

Paleejo is quick to point out that not only is she the only woman to have been elected in Sindh, she’s the only woman to have run for either a provincial or a national seat, although others will be given reserved seats in both assemblies.

Her election campaign may have been helped by the Bhutto aura. She was a close friend and political collaborator of Benazir and, unsurprisingly, remains faithful to her memory. She predicts that the first act of the new government will be to ask the UN to investigate Benazir’s assassination, a demand which seems to have slipped national party leaders’ memories in the aftermath of the election.

She dismisses the idea that the Bhutto family’s dominance of the party is a weakness, especially after Benazir’s death, describing such dynasties as “kind of a norm in south Asia”, as with the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka or the Gandhis in India.

Paleejo believes that the PPP will be able to cohabit with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, despite their past rivalry, citing as not very convincing evidence, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, an anti-Musharraf front which broke up when the two parties fell out.

The new Provincial Assembly member could yet fall victim to the PML-Q’s penchant for the continuation of politics by judicial means. She’s facing terror charges, arising from the riots that exploded after Benazir’s assassination.

“They claim that, at a time, I attacked four to five police stations, that I stole their weapons, I was involved in so many different kinds of riots and attacks.”

No charges have been laid for the murder of PPP workers, she claims, “but right now Pakistan is the unique district where you will see that more than 120,000 cases have been registered against our people.”

Several candidates were charged in Thatta, seriously hampering their campaigns.

“Even during my election campaign, the first thing I used to do was I had to go to the Session Court for a hearing, then I had to rush to Anti-Terrorist Court … and then I had to come back to Thatta and run my election campaign.”

But “we believe democracy, we believe in Benazir Bhutto’s sacrifice, that’s why we won’t let our people down.”

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Makli cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

On our way back to Karachi we stopped at the Moghul-era Makli cemetery, parts of which have been restored.

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Sufi snake-charmer Photo: Tony Cross

There were Sufi pir snake-charmers there.

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An adventure with a snake

Yes, they made me hold the snake – it’s like having a muscle rap itself around your arm.

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Mongoose v snake Photo: Tony Cross

… before setting a mongoose on it and killing it (this wasn’t my idea!).

Before the election … the PPP campaigns near Islamabad

During the election campaign I saw the PPP campaigning in a rural constituency near Islamabad. Candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari insisted he had the voters’ interests at hear but it wasn’t easy to see what he had in common with them.

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Nayyar Hussein Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Zia Masjid 12.02.2008

The village of Zia Masjid doesn’t seem especially bucolic. The motorway out of Islamabad roars right past it. Many of its buildings are brick and concrete structures, several storeys high.

Parliamentary candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari describes his constituency, which covers parts of Islamabad and some of the villages around it, as 80% rural and Zia Masjid as one of its suburban districts.

The main entrance from the major road is blocked by stones and a police officer with a rifle, part of the security for an open air meeting in support of Bukhari’s bid to be re-elected on behalf of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party, the PPP.

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The audience at Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

You can enter the village by a side road and drive along a ridge until you are overlooking a patch of dusty ground. Here an auditorium has been created by making a wall of blue-patterned cloth stretched on poles. On one side a huge banner bears the party’s colours, red, green and black, its symbol, an arrow, and giant pictures of Bukhari and Bhutto.

At first, there are only a few party activists and scruffy children, all male, many with skin complaints and snotty noses, dressed in ear-muffs and woolly hats against the relative cool of a February afternoon.

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Prayers open the meeting Photo: Tony Cross

As a young man tests the rackety sound system, without any evident effect on the distortion it visits on the voices and music it broadcasts, eager party members lead the kids in a warm-up chant. A tape of Benazir’s voice, hoarsely addressing a crowd before her assassination, echoes across the empty seats. There are no women present.

A crowd forms well before the arrival of the candidate. Mansour Ahmad, a tall, gaunt man who looks eerily like a Pakistani George Orwell dressed in a checkered scarf and double-breasted jacket over a shalwar kameez, fervently denounces Musharraf as an “unwanted and unnecessary person in our country” and predicts that his party will triumph in next week’s election.

An old, raggedly-dressed man raises the main concern of many voters, the rising price of basic foods and other essentials.

“We are citizens of Pakistan and we cannot find attar [the wheat-flour with which chapattis are made]. Everything is getting very expensive. So we get into debt … We have no money, we don’t run businesses, we don’t have any work. We can’t afford clothes, there’s no electricity, no gas. Everything is finished! Where should we go?”

When Bukhari finally emerges from a land-cruiser, he’s mobbed by boys and men alike.

The candidate glows under the blaze of attention, although he isn’t quite as freshly pink as his picture on the election posters, and handshakes his way through the crowd.

There are good many warm-up acts. Mansour Ahmad chairs the meeting and introduces the local imam who says a prayer. Then a succession of village orators take the stand. Their delivery is more than competent, a tribute to the survival of oral culture in Pakistan. It’s impossible to imagine a comparable number of good speakers in a European village or small town.

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Zia Masjid prepares for the PPP meeting Photo: Tony Cross

Bukhari is well-received when he speaks and he doesn’t fail to invoke the memory of Benazir. Like many Pakistani politicians, he’s a lawyer, so certainly considerably better-off than his audience. Seated in the landcruiser as he whizzes to his next engagement, I ask if he understands the problems of the poor people of Zia Masjid.

He seems slightly offended and a little flustered by the question.

“Yes, of course I do, sir,” he says. “Because I hail from a rural area and I understand the people’s problem.”

He adds that he was, in fact, born and brought up in the area that he represents.

“Most of the people they ask for the provision of the basic necessities, you know, provision of the gas, roads, schools, hospitals. These are the basic things which they lack in the area.”

He claims that the PPP started providing gas to smaller communities. “Since 1996 People’s Party’s out of power and not a single village has been provided gas by any succeeding government.”

There are no colleges in the area and he wants more colleges and schools “for girls and for boys, also” to combat illiteracy.

The PPP has been encouraged by opinion polls produced by two  right-wing American organizations, Terror Free Tomorrow, on whose board sits Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, and the International Republican Institute. They show the party winning 50% or more of the vote, with Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League-N, coming second and Musharraf’s allies, the Muslim League-Q trailing in third place.

Bukhari says that the party will be pluralistic in victory, seeking to form a coalition with all “democratic forces” even if it wins a majority of seats on its own. But that doesn’t include “the one that was under the umbrella of a uniform”, that is to say PML-Q.

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Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Islamabad Photo: Tony Cross

Back in the city, Bukhari rushes into another improvised meeting-place. Colourful materials form decorative walls for the next meeting, which this time is composed only of women.

To hear my radio report for RFI of Bukhari on the campaign trail click here

To read and listen to my reports of 2007-08 in Pakistan click here

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Family business – Pakistani powerbrokers the Gujrat Chaudhrys plan to stay in the post-Musharraf game

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As the PML-Q – a party that split from Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League N – faced defeat in the 2008 election due to its support for military ruler Pervez Musharraf, one family was confident of keeping its grip on its homebase, the Punjab town of Gujrat, and thus in the national political game. On a visit to their home I found out about the origins of their hostility to the Bhutto family and the PPP and their intention of staying in Pakistani politics. Portrait of a dynasty, written after that visit. 

Gujrat 15.02.2008

In a small room at the back of a vast, white building in the centre of the Punjab city of Gujrat, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, former Interior Minister, president of the outgoing government party and leader of its group in the National Assembly, meets visiting journalists, party activists and family members.

A large, hawk-faced man, with a broad, bitter-looking mouth, he’s showing signs of age. He wears sunglasses indoors, presumably to protect sensitive eyes, and speaks in a faltering voice.

He says that his local party workers told him to attend to national party duties, rather than campaign in his own seat, so confident are they that he’ll be reelected.

The confidence flows from the Chaudhry family’s notorious hold on the town and its surrounding district. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s brother, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, is also an MP and expects to be prime minister if his party wins. Chaudhry Shufaat Hussein, who’s also in the room, is the district administrator, the nazim. “Me being the youngest brother”, he didn’t get a National Assembly seat, he explains. Pervaiz Elahi’s son, Moonis, is standing for a seat in Lahore.

“People like us, they keep electing us. What’s wrong with that?” says Shufaat. He puts that  support down to their good administration of the town.

Shujaat agrees.

“I don’t want to boast or anything but for the last five years my brother was the nazim of Gujrat. He’s worked very hard. I’ll give you one example, Gujrat is the only city where in each and every village there’s electricity, roads and all the amenities.”

Shujaat’s son, Salik – yes, he’s in the room, too – explains that the family’s influence goes back to before the creation of Pakistan.

His great-grandfather went into politics before partition, while his great-uncle looked after the business side by running a handloom factory in India.

For the next generation, Salik’s grandfather, Zahur Elahi, carried on the political tradition. That was then the family’s hostility to the PPP seems to have begun. Zahur was jailed when Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was prime minister.

“He was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience,” both Salik and Shufaat report with pride.

Zahur was later murdered.

The Chaudhrys blame the Bhuttos for that, too. Benazir’s brother, Murtaza, was running a radical armed group at the time (“the first terrorist organisation in this region,” says Shujaat). They say that he claimed responsibility for the killing the same evening. Murtaza himself later fell out with his sister and was gunned down near his home in mysterious circumstances – a killing that his daughter, Fatima, blames on her aunt.

But Shujaat insists there’s no bitterness. As Interior Minister in the 1990s, he says he refused to bend the law so as to get her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, extradited to Britain and that he went so far as to allow Benazir and Zardari to stay together when they were jailed under Nawaz Sharif.

“After four or five days, the President of Pakistan Ghulam Issaq Khan, he called me in his office and he asked me that ‘Chaudhry Sahib, since when you have started this business of honeymoons?’.”

After the coming election, there could be a coalition between the two parties. “If they win, they should cooperate. If we win, we should cooperate.”

For my reports for RFI on the 2008 Pakistani election click here

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Lions, tigers and tight security as Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) builds on Punjab base

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Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, not to be accused with the breakaway PML-Q, had to wait until 2013 to profit from disillusion with the PPP and take over Pakistan’s government. But they were on the ascendant in the 2008 poll, especially in their power base of Punjab, the province that dominates the country in many ways. But they were worried about election fraud, as well any Pakistani politician may, since almost all of them have an intimate acquaintance with the phenomenon. A report I wrote up after a PML-N rally in 2008.

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Shahbaz Sharif (C in scarf) waits to address the Sheikhupura rally Photo: Tony Cross

Sheikhupura 16.02.2008

Sheikhupura is not far from the motorway between Lahore and Islamabad, which Nawaz Sharif reportedly feels is one of the three great achievements of his time as Prime Minister.

The other two are the “green tractors” scheme – cheap loans for farmers to buy tractors – and the yellow cab scheme – more cheap loans, this time for prospective taxi-drivers.

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Sheikhupura welcomes Shahbaz Photo: Tony Cross

The nation’s cabbies still remember this last measure and the chairman of the Pakistan Yellow Cab Federation, Najam-us-Saqib, along with several other taxi-drivers, accompanies the caravan that drives from Lahore to Sheikhapura for an election rally which will star, Nawaz’s brother, Shahbaz.

Shahbaz is president of the Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League N, and a former Chief Minister of Punjab province, which is the PML-N’s heartland and has 54% of the seats in the National Assembly. He wants his old job back.

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“No fear” – Police guard the platform Photo: Tony Cross

Security at the rally is as tight as at the PPP meeting in Faisalabad two days ago. The PML-N leaders are protected by the party’s own stewards, the Punjab police (wearing jackets bearing the slogan “No Fear” on the back) and the national police, all armed. As at the PPP rally, the podium is surrounded by an empty space fenced off from the audience, although the crowd shows no sign of evil intent towards Shahbaz or his comrades.

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Tiger, lion … any big cat will do to show your support for PML-N, sometimes they even bring the real thing on the back of a truck Photo: Tony Cross

Quite the contrary. Young men wear lion T-shirts to recall the party’s symbol, which is actually a tiger but any big cat seems to do so long as it’s sufficiently rugged. Older men brandish placards welcoming Shahbaz to their town and a small group of women, most of whom wear cover, file in to take specially designated seats. A portly gentleman in a flowing robe, orange turban and wooden necklace shouts slogans and goes into ecstasies when leaflets are dropped from above.

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“Do you have such zeal?” supporters show their enthusiasm for the PML-N Photo: Tony Cross

An enthusiastic local journalist asks how this compares to election rallies in Europe. “Do you have such zeal?”

The PML-N takes the firmest line on one of the key questions in the election campaign – Musharraf’s sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry and 60 judges who refused to take a new oath of office after the president declared a state of emergency.

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Women enter the reserved section of the PML-N rally Photo: Tony Cross

Nawaz Sharif has promised that they will be reinstated, although the party programme is a little vaguer, promising only “a coherent strategy” to get them their jobs back. The PPP’s programme makes no commitment at all on the question.

Last night, on the way back to Lahore from Gujrat, student Wasim Bhatt was among villagers letting off fireworks to welcome the PML-N candidate for their areas. He cited his belief that the party is “struggling for our judiciary” as the main reason why he supported it.

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A relatively restrained part of the crowd Photo: Tony Cross

At the rally, party member and housewife, Rafiyal, has the cost of living on her mind.

“Skyrocketing prices are disturbing now. At the time that Nawaz Sharif was prime minister I bought attar flower at only six rupees per kilo. Now it’s 40 rupees per kilo.”

When he speaks, Shahbaz Sharif seems to have difficulty complying with security needs. Hands flailing and jabbing in various directions, he seems desperate to escape from behind the bullet-proof glass that protects the rostrum. He must be one of those Pakistani politicians who, I’m told, are unhappy about the distance from their supporters imposed by the fear of bombs and assassination.

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Drummers give their hands a rest Photo: Tony Cross

The party seems seriously worried that fraud will rob them of seats. Shahbaz promises polling officials that the party will make their lives a misery if they give in to pressure to cheat.

Later PML-N press attaché, Khawaja Aamer Raza, says they have already uncovered several cases of trickery by the PML-Q, which split from the PML-N and supports Musharraf.

“PML-Q candidates have been supported by government funds and government machinery,” he claims. “And the establishment and the police and the other agencies, they are supporting openly and they are asking for the votes for the PML-Q.”

But he hopes that the “ratio of hatred” against Musharraf and his allies will save the day, by making it impossible to rig the vote sufficiently to give them victory.

For an audio report of the PML-N’s election campaign click here. and for my reports for RFI on the 2008 election click here.

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Peoples Party trades on Benazir martyrdom to harvest votes from poor in Pakistan’s 2008 election

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Despite her assassination, Benazir Bhutto was to play a major role in Pakistan’s 2008 rally. Her recorded voice and her picture meant she was the star at election rallies addressed by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a dodgy businessman converted into the guardian of the Bhutto martyr cult – a handy propaganda weapon for a party led by wealthy landowners but drawing most of its votes from the poor, some of whom call for socialist revolution. This is my account of a rally in the city of Faisalabad, written at the time.

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A young man brandishes a poster of Benazir and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at the rally in Faisalabad Photo: Tony Cross

Faisalabad 14.02.2008

The Benazir cult is at its height in Faisalabad, an industrial city in Punjab province where her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, has chosen to hold the last of his small number of election rallies.

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An exultant PPP supporter enters the rally at Faisalabad Photo: Tony Cross

The Benazir tape plays again and again. Her image is everywhere – on banners, on posters and on placards held by the faithful. Sometimes her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, gets into the picture, too. He was the party’s founder and its first martyr, when General Zia ul-Haq deposed him as prime minister and then had him hanged.

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Young PPP supporters Photo: Tony Cross

The martyrology appeals to Rayur Abbas, who, judging by his references to the battle of Kerbala and the death of Ali, is a Shia-Moslem and has the Shia admiration for sacrifice and solidarity with the oppressed.

“Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first prime minister in Pakistan who give the courage to the lowest persons of this country,” he says. “Before Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the lowest persons  could not talk with the rich persons, their owners where they do the work. He gave us the courage to speak against the rich persons which don’t give you the rights.”

The fact that the Bhuttos and many other PPP leaders are big landowners, often called “feudal” by their critics, doesn’t worry him.

“In the circumstances of Pakistan, the poor person cannot participate in the political system  because this is the old game of money … There is no doubt that the rich persons are leading us but the training of the Pakistan People’s Party is, if you cannot support the poor persons, you cannot live in our party.”

The Bhutto family is the only family in Pakistan to have sacrificed their lives for their convictions, he says.

“The others have not a single sacrifice – not a little scratch of the skin. But Benazir Bhutto – I salute her.”

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Female PPP activists organise the women’s seating at the Faisalabad rally Photo: Tony Cross

Under an increasingly hot sun, a crowd of thousands assembles. Many are clearly poor. There are representatives of the local tobacco-workers’ union which is supporting the PPP. Women file in through a separate entrance, where they are frisked by female cops and party workers. A large delegation of students chants “Benazir zindabad!” – “Long live Benazir!”

One of their leaders, Ali Hassan Bukhari, strikes a radical note, which seems inconsistent with the party’s record in government.

“We want a socialist revolution here in Pakistan,” he declares.” And every problem will be solved through revolution. No reformism, we don’t want any reformism. The need of the hour is a socialist revolution. That is the only solution, not only for the students but for all people of this country and, also, not only for this country but for the whole world.”

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Security at the entry to the rally Photo: Tony Cross

Zardari, whose nickname is “Mr Ten Per-cent” because of his reputation for corruption when his wife was prime minister, doesn’t seem to have this course of action in mind. Recently he told the newspapers that he was ready to form a coalition government of all parties, including Musharraf’s allies, the PML-Q.

Bukhari feels that is due to pressure from journalists.
“When our leader goes to a media person, his thinking is something else,” he says and adds that the real Zardari reveals himself when he speaks to the ordinary people.

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A young man dances as drummers warm up the crowd Photo: Tony Cross

After four hours of chanting and speeches, Zardari finally speaks.

He declares that democracy will be the best revenge for his wife’s death and hints that he may shift the balance of power away from Punjab, which is perceived as dominating the country’s politics and the military, declaring that equality between all the provinces is the best way to avoid animosity against Punjabis.

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The women’s section at the rally Photo: Tony Cross

The crowd pours into the street as soon as Zardari finishes. A car with two young men in it zig-zags through the traffic, playing a tape of Benazir at full volume with the windows down.

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The audience approves at the PPP Faisalabad rally Photo: Tony Cross

For audio reports on the PPP election campaign click here and on this rally click here.

For all my reports for RFI on the 2008 Pakistan election click here.

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Kidnapped, tortured, sold to the Americans … Pakistan’s missing persons, casualties of the war on terror

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I visited Pakistan in 2007 as then-president Pervez Musharraf’s military regime was about to fall, locked in conflict with the main political parties and with the formerly compliant legal apparatus, in particular with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry, whose judgements irritated Musharraf so much that he had him removed at one point.

One key point of friction between the president and the courts was “missing persons”, civilians who had vanished thanks to the attentions of the secret services, who kept them in secret jails or sold them to the US for a bounty, ensuring a regular supply of detainees for the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, regardless of whether they were guilty or not.

On a sweltering day in Peshawar I met a former Guantanamo detainee hiding from the police and the secret services and in Rawalpindi I met the wife of a man who had disappeared and a lawyer fighting his case and those of several others. Their testimony was both moving and shocking.

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Pakistani lawyers protest against the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who ordered security forces to produce missing peresons Photo: Tony Cross

You can only meet Badr Dost by appointment, since he is trying to avoid the attentions of the Pakistani security forces.

We meet him at the family home in the back streets of the city of Peshawar. But only after one of his nephews has checked that we haven’t brought unwanted company and summoned him from his hiding place.

Dost has been taking this sort of precaution since his brother, Muslim, was arrested a year ago.

Badr believes that the police would have taken him, too, if his nephews hadn’t warned him of Muslim’s arrest.

The family heard nothing from or about Muslim for eight months and the authorities denied that they were holding him.

An appeal to a Peshawar court finally forced police to admit that he was in jail in one of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal agencies and bring him to Peshawar’s main prison.

They say that Muslim, an Afghan who has lived in Pakistan for 30 years, has broken an obscure law about residency in the country.

That was not the first time that he had been arrested.

After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Badr and Muslim, who don’t hide their Islamist sympathies, criticised the US-led operation.

Pakistani security forces picked them up and handed them over to US forces, who held them in two bases in Afghanistan, before flying them to the US’s detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

After a year, the brothers were told that the Americans had nothing against them.

But, along with other inmates in the same situation, they were kept for another year and a half before being sent home.

His account of his detention confirms the widespread reports of abuse and torture there.

“They were kicking us with their soldiers’ boots and hitting us with their fists,” he says. “We were beaten and we were kept up awake for a long time. They were not allowing us to sleep and we were kept in isolation.”

Inmates were held in extreme temperatures, he claims, and pornography was stuck on the walls of some religious prisoners’ cells as a form of “mental torture”. Dost believes that the guards went out of their way to offend the prisoners’ religious feelings.

“The American soldiers, the MPs, they were searching us every day,” he says. “They were searching the holy book as if we are hiding something inside, but that was not true because they have searched many, many times. They were desecrating the holy book. They were touching it, they were throwing it on the ground, they were stepping on it, they were tearing it to pieces and putting it in drums of shit in front of us.”

He says that the abuse of the Koran only ended after the inmates staged a hunger strike.

On their return, the brothers published a book, The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo.

If they were expecting an apology or compensation for wrongful detention, loss of business and disruption to their family life – they were to be disappointed.

The book appeared on 3 September. Muslim was arrested – again – on the 20th.

“After eight months he was produced in the tribal area and then he was brought to central jail of Peshawar,” he says. “So right now we are suing his case in Supreme Court and hopefully he will be released. But still there are head and hands who want to black him and want to put him in jail for a long time.”

The “head and hands” Badr Dost fears are elements in the Pakistani state apparatus, who, as well as carrying on a dirty war against armed Islamists, when it suits them, carry on a lucrative trade with the Americans, who pay money for supposed “terrorists”, who will be transferred to jails in Afghanistan or Guantanamo.

Most feared of all are military intelligence, the ISI.

“It was a business,” he comments. “And they have announced if the local authorities are arresting any terrorists, so they will be awarded [for] a common man 5,000 [rupees] and a wanted man maybe millions. So even Americans were telling us that they have paid a lot to Pakistani authorities for arresting us.”

For a longer version of my interview with Badr Dost click here.

“When your dearest thing, the most precious thing in the world, is taken away, what is there left in life for me?” asks Amina Janjua, sitting in a dowdy office in Rawalpindi, the military garrison town that is practically a suburb of Islamabad – or perhaps it’s vice versa.

The last time she saw her husband, Masood, he was getting on a bus to Peshawar from their home-town, Rawalpindi.

He and the friend who was with him, Faisal Fawaz, never arrived at their destination.

Amina is convinced that secret policemen from the Inter-Securities Agency (ISI) spirited them off to a secret jail on suspicion of Islamist tendencies, taking their long beards as signs of fundamentalist tendencies.

Amina insists that Masood had nothing to do with politics.

“I don’t want to live any more,” she says. “It’s just for my husband’s sake that I’m fighting and this is the hope that is keeping me alive. I’m going to get him back.”

Her suspicions were confirmed when a released prisoner said that he had seen Masood during his period of detention.

Amina and her three children have fought hard to locate Masood and get him released.

They camped out in front of the Supreme Court and contacted other families in the same situation.

They claim to have discovered ISI “safe houses”, dotted around the country, with families living on the ground floor, while prisoners are tortured in the cellar.

“I have come to know that there are safe houses in every nook and corner of this city,” she explains. “Every street is having a safe house, where apparently there is a house, normal, and a family living but underneath there is a secret house where these persons are kept and being tortured. For years now.”

For an audio report on Pakistan’s missing persons click here.

Over 400 cases are now going through the courts, 100 of them fought by Amina’s lawyer, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqi.

Siddiqi, who is a member of the Islamic party Jamaat-i-Islami, recently won the release of Hafez Abdul Basit, who had vanished for three and a half years, detained because he has associated with someone linked to the 2003 attempts on Pervez Musharraf’s life.

“His beard was shaved off, third-degree methods were used on him,” he says. “Threats were also extended to him that ‘we will bring your sister, your mother and all your favourite members of your family, who will be raped in front of you – just listen to the voices from the neighbouring room, that we have already brought so many ladies in this connection’.”

For one month Basit was not allowed to sit, still less sleep, before being confined to a tiny, sordid cell, Siddiqi claims.

The police only admitted knowing his whereabouts after Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry told the deputy inspector general of the CID that he would be jailed himself if he didn’t produce Basit within 24 hours.

The impunity with which Pakistan’s secret services operate has its origins in the country’s violent history and overspill from the Afghan war.

Many of the armed Islamists who would like to assassinate Musharraf were trained by the ISI to fight in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

But its latest manifestations are intimately linked to the US’s “war on terror”, which has led to bounties paid for prisoners, political support for Musharraf and a ten-billion dollar subsidy to the country since 9-11.

For my reports for RFI on Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here.

For some of my reporting from Afghanistan for RFI click here and here.

For Afghanistan in 2001 on this blog here and in 2005 here.

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Pakistan’s Islamist parties – a legacy of military dictators and Afghanistan’s wars

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In 2007 the rule of General Pervez Musharraf was drawing to an end. His seizure of power in 2001 had encountered little opposition but his failure to tackle corruption and poverty and his support for the US’s post 9/11 War on Terror, which gave birth to a dirty war in Pakistan itself, meant that he was unpopular and under political pressure in 2007. Now the man he kicked out, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistani Muslim League (PMLN) – not to be confused with Musharraf’s PMLQ – was coming back to Pakistan after living in exile as a guest of Saudi Arabia. I was sent to cover his return – which didn’t happen. But I was able to report on the state of the country ahead of Musharraf’s fall in 2008.

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Mounted police prevent journalists gaining access to Islamabad airport as Nawaz Sharif arrives, only to be sent back to Saudi Arabia Photo: Tony Cross

Sharif touched down, only to be sent back to Saudi, Musharraf quite rightly fearing the reception he would have received … and did when he finally returned in 2008. The press was prevented from covering his arrival, we sweated in the sun on the road leading to the airport, while TV showed footage of a visibly shaken Sharif being escorted back to his plane by police.

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Future prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (2nd L, front row) prepares to announce that Benazir Bhutto will return to Pakistan at a hastily organised press conference in Peshawar Photo: Tony Cross

In Peshawar the PPP proudly announced that their leader, Benazir Bhutto, would soon return. She did, to a rapturous reception, only to be assassinated as she campaigned against Musharraf.

Unfortunately, the account I wrote at the time has vanished into the guts of a computer, as have others on the Palestinian presidential election in 2005 and the Turkish presidential election in 2007, but I have managed to reconstitute this report on the religious parties’ alliance, the MMA, a minority but an influential one, thanks largely to the manoeuvring of various military rulers, the failures of Pakistan’s education system and the fallout from the Afghan wars. An account of the 2008 election campaign will follow.

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Waliat Khan, who makes rabobs – a traditional musical instrument – in Peshawar. His business survived despite a MMA ban on public musical performances Photo: Tony Cross

Peshawar, September 2007

Peshawar is capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), separated from Pakistan by the self-administering tribal areas, Pashtun country, like much of Afghanistan, and much affected by the Afghan war.

It has hosted millions of refugees since the Afghan Communist Party, the PDPA, took power in the 1970s and has continued to do so in the decades of war that have followed.

Since 2002 the province, and the city, have been run by an alliance of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, (MMA).

Shortly after taking over, the MMA passed a law which decreed a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law throughout the province.

Music for amusement was banned in public places, barbers forbidden to shave their customers, the two alcohol licences permitted to hotels frequented by non-Muslims were withdrawn, women were ordered to wear the burka and women’s bodies on hoardings covered up.

Musicians found ways round the law by simply moving to different places away from the authorities’ gaze, while bootleggers made it known that they would deliver booze to your door – cheaper, since they didn’t have to pay for licences.

But the law proved unpopular, as did the religious police set up to enforce it.

Anwar Kamal is a local leader of the Muslim League, PMLN, which is allied to the

MMA at national level and voted for sharia in the province.

Sitting in his comfortable home in a middle-class district of the city, he seems to regret the vote now.

“At the instructions of the present [provincial] government, you see, these people would come out on roads, stop your vehicle, pull out your cassette-player, break it there, pull out these billboards that would carry ladies’ photographs,” he says. “I’m not the one that disapproved of that but the common man also disapproved of that.”

Taking on music – a favourite amusement of all Pakistanis apart from the most puritanical of religious activists – appears to have cost the MMA and their religious police a lot of support.

The MMA claims to be more concerned about social justice than the Moslem League.

But in North West Frontier Province, and in Baloochistan, the other province where it is part of a governing coalition, it hasn’t got far in wiping out poverty.

Kamal argues that deprives it of the right to be too strict in introducing sharia.

“Islam says when somebody commits a theft crime you chop off his hand,” he concedes. “But there’s a precondition and that precondition is that you provide him an opportunity so that he can earn his own living. But if the government or the state fails to provide him that opportunity of earning, then you cannot punish him under Islamic law, that is chopping off his hand, you can put him in jail.”

Confronted by the federal government, which dubbed its actions “unconstitutional”, the provincial government has dissolved the religious police.

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Pupils at the Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa Photo: Tony Cross

Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa, south of Peshawar, is one of thousands of religious schools in Pakistan which take up the slack left by a resource-starved public education system.

It’s one of the biggest, with about 3,000 students, and one of the most radical.

Haqqania’s head, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, was a friend and admirer of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and sent students to fight for him.

Ul-Haq also leads a breakaway faction of the Jamaat-Ulema-Islam, the country’s second biggest Islamist party, which has split from the MMA.

“They did not go on the road that we had decided,” explains Syeed Yusuf Shah, who teaches at the madrassa and is the faction’s North-West Frontier Province general-secretary. “We made some contents but they did not even work one per cent on that contents. For example, one of them was that we will not help America. But we helped. So we showed to our nation that we would do this-this-this contents but we didn’t do even zero per cent for them. That’s why MMA is unsuccessful.”

The maulana makes no secret of his support for the Taliban fighting the current Afghan government and his contempt for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose cooperation with George Bush’s War on Terror has strengthened the religious parties, especially in NWFP, most of whose people are Pashtun like the majority of Afghans.

For a fuller report of my visit to Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa click here 

The violence of the Afghan conflict often spreads over the border.

But Pakistan hasn’t suffered the decades of civil war which brought the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.

The MMA mayor of Peshawar. Cahulam Ali, claims that gave the Taliban a mandate for sharia which his party didn’t have.

“Taliban government was supported by the people there,” he argues. “They were happy with that government. They obeyed Islamic rules but the Taliban did not impose their will on them. If you impose people here with the sharia bill in this area, people will oppose and people did oppose this bill. They say that at that time there was no gun, there was no fight between them – why do you impose us to do it?”

In areas where they haven’t won a majority, some hardline Islamists still try to enforce their views – trying to destroy statues of the Buddha in the Swat Valley, for example, threatening to kill barbers who shave of beards or bullying a woman who had acid thrown in her face not to go to an NGO because NGOs are supposedly agents of the infidel West.

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Barbed wire around the Lal Masjid after it was stormed Photo: Tony Cross

In Istanbul two brothers used the city’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) as a base to send madrassa students out to close down Chinese massage parlours, claiming they were really brothels, enforce bans on alcohol and other measures.

After several months the army stormed the mosque, resulting in as many as 400 people being killed and enraging the religious parties and alienating part of the population.

I visited Qazi Hussein Ahmed, the leader the largest party in the MMA, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), in his home in Islamabad, where he was under house arrest for his opposition to Musharraf, whom he blamed for the bloodshed.

“Nobody can understand why did he resort to the use of force,” he told me. “We can disagree with the people of Lal Masjid … but there were so many ways in which they could have been controlled and they could have been evacuated. But they resorted to very inhuman killings, indiscriminate killings of the people.”

JeI opposed extrajudicial attempts to impose sharia, he said, but insisted that the Western mind has been “poisoned” against Islamic law.

“The objectives of sharia are not understood,” he argues. “The basic objective of sharia is that man should be related to the creator and he should be God-conscious and he should have the sense that he is accountable before God for all his acts and this makes him a responsible person. We want that the life, the property and the honour and also the mind of a citizen should be protected … this can be done through persuasion and through education and through training.”

Westerners think it is simply a question of “chopping off hands or chopping off legs” but these are these are a “final resort” if people are “bent on creating corruption in society”.

The MMA’s difference with the PMLN was that they wanted social justice and disagreed with liberal, free-market economics, Ahmed said.

At national level, the religious parties don’t have enough support to rule alone and the secular PPP accuses them of being inconsistent in their opposition to Musharraf.

The MMA is also accused of whipping up sectarianism, especially against the Shia-Muslim minority, despite the presence of Shia religious parties in its ranks.

In the massive port city of Karachi, Shia politician Abbas Qulemi told me that sectarian violence was high in areas where the MMA is high, including in Dera Ismail Khan, the constituency of MMA leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and in NWFP.

“They have miserably failed in controlling the situation there [in NWFP], particularly in the killings of Shias,” he said. “You see, lots of Talibans are there … When they go to Afghanistan they fight there, when they come back they kill the Shias and, more surprisingly, the Shias are being killed and their relatives are being arrested.”

Both the religious parties and the Muslim League gained influence under the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s and 80s. A strict Muslim himself, he built them up to counter the PPP, whose leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he had executed after toppling him from power, and he was a key figure in helping Islamist mujaheddin fight the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.

The MMA still has support, especially as opposition to Musharraf grows, but they can only hope to be part of a coalition, probably with the Muslim League which is unlikely to go along with their wish to impose sharia law. But they still exercise considerable influence on Pakistani politics and everyday life.

For an audio report on Pakistan’s religious parties click here 

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Women, warlords, drug-runners and NGOs … eyewitness to Afghanistan’s 2005 legislative election in Kabul and Herat

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In 2005 I covered Afghanistan’s first post-invasion parliamentary election. Here’s my account, written at the time, of how women and independent candidates struggled to make their voices heard, despite quotas, in a contest dominated by warlords and ethnic-based politicians. In the eastern city of Herat the legacy of one of these ruthless operators lives on, despite his being kicked upstairs to central government. In Kabul a former minister claims a mafia of warlords, drug-runners and NGOs is running the country.

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A Kabul kebab restaurant Photo: Tony Cross

Kabul, 11 September 2005

At last, the freedom they were fighting for! Four years after the US and its allies toppled the Taliban, Kabul has traffic jams.

Our midday journey from the airport to a hotel in the centre of town is excruciating, as we crawl through streets packed with private cars, taxis and land-cruisers.

At the end of the war, there were comparatively few motor vehicles.

Just under a year ago, during the presidential election, there was more traffic but not this asphyxiating blockade of the city’s main arteries.

Now the smog has become thicker and the thrum of engines ticking over lasts from mid-morning to evening. Every Kabuli has been granted the democratic right to sit and curse the car in front and pump fumes into the city’s already dust-laden air, whether in his or her own car, in a taxi or in a minibus stuffed full of passengers.

Except for the beggars and hawkers, of course. Amputees, women clad in soiled and faded burkas and kids selling newspapers dodge between the cars and tap on the windows. Near the junction of Park Street and Chicken Street, where foreigners shop for rugs and antique furniture, a man dressed in rags stands in the middle of the traffic, bent under the weight of an apparently paralysed boy who is strapped to his back for the day. The man holds out his hand for alms from the oncoming motorists, as the boy lies on top of him, occasionally rolling his head from side to side, apparently oblivious to the passing traffic.

The Americans are rebuilding the road from the airport, so that visiting dignitaries have a smooth run to their main compound, which is on the way into the city.

The concrete and barbed wire fortifications around their buildings, and those around others that house foreign organisations or Afghan ministries, seem to have been reinforced, eating even further into the streets around them. It doesn’t look as if their occupants expect to leave any day soon.

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A trader makes and seels Karzai-style astrakhan hats in a Kabul market Photo: Tony Cross

The square in front of the defence ministry is cordoned off  by police … not just because a convoy of cars belonging to Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak was attacked yesterday – the attack missed the minister who was out of town at the time – but also because the square is occupied by several hundred former soldiers.

We have to negotiate a passage through a barricade of bikes before we can talk to the protestors. They are some of several thousand military officers, about a third of the officer corps, who have been thrown out of the army.

These men used to belong to the various militias which were integrated into the army as part of the process which is supposed to demilitarise the country.

Having noticed that army officers’ salaries are several times higher than those of the police, the government has decided to dispense with their services.

The men, who seem to represent all of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups, sit quietly in the dust around a van with a loudspeaker and a man on its roof, addressing them.

He climbs down and comes to talk to us.

Abdel Hafiz was a colonel. He says that the redundant officers could do the work now being done by the more than 30,000 foreign troops in a far-from-pacified country.

“We have high-ranking officers who are experienced and don’t need training. So we don’t need international forces to come here and secure our country.”

There aren’t a lot of jobs about nor spare fertile land to be worked.

“We’ve been borrowing from our friends and from our relatives, so now we are not able to borrow again. Now we’re out of money and our economic condition is getting worse.”

A crowd of about 40 men gathers as we talk. They all claim to be ex-mujahedin, who have fought either the Russians or the Taliban or both.

But the label can cover a multitude of sins. They could well have been involved in the brutality and sectarian viciousness which characterised the conflict and that means that many civilians don’t trust them.

Brought into the army by the post-war Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, which aimed to find places for former fighters in a peaceful Afghanistan, they’ve now been deintegrated with little training in anything other than warfare … thousands of experienced fighters at a loose end in a country already ravaged by war.

Behind the cordon of truncheon-wielding police in front of the entrance to the ministry stands a line of soldiers, guns at the ready for use against their former officers if need be.

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A girl plays by the water pump installed by residents of Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Shah Shaheen is a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kabul. The houses sprawling up the hillside and the dirt road that winds between them are all the same dusty colour. A new water-pump stands in a gap in the buildings, rigid and shiny against the jagged outline of distant mountains. The local people have themselves paid for its installation and would like the government to compensate them for the cost and provide other basic services.

Behind the shabby walls, in a house built around a traditional courtyard, Ghutai Khawari sits on a raised piece of ground, flanked by local supporters, with a small audience sitting in the shade provided by a colourfully-patterned sheet stretched between tall roughly-cut poles.

Khawari is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament which is to be elected on Sunday along with provincial assemblies.

She’s a journalist and her level of education seems to impress her audience. In a country with 70-80% illiteracy, poor voters almost always say that they want an “educated person” to represent them.

Her audience is entirely masculine, unless you count a few little girls playing in the street outside.

The men seem to have left their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers at home but they insist that they’re ready to vote for a woman candidate.

Ali, a young man who is enthusiastically moving chairs and making people welcome, speaks to us in English.

“No, it’s not important, that, it is no problem. Islam says that women and men are equal.”

Ghawari tells her audience that it would be a sin to vote for candidates with blood on their hands, a reference to the many warlords who’ve found their way onto the ballot-papers.

Earlier she told us that ending ethnic enmity is her top priority, “especially among women, where they say ‘you’re a Pashtun, you’re a Tajik’ and so on, because we’re women, we’re human, we’re one.”

She accuses the authorities of paying lip-service to helping women but not taking action.

“The government and some NGOs say they will give rights to the people but they don’t pay any attention to the majority of women, who live in the villages, in the provinces.”

She cites as examples the lack of education for girls and poor health care, which, she says leads to 1,000 women dying in childbirth every year.

To her audience she also stresses that she is running a shoe-string campaign.

“You are my only resources,” she tells them.

At least 68 seats have been reserved for women in the 249-member Wolesi Jirga, with at least two in the provincial councils, which will have between nine and 29 members.

Women’s rights campaigners are encouraged by the fact that 328 women are standing for the Wolesi Jirga. Not so many have come forward for the provincial councils, however, where the weight of tradition may be heavier.

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The ruins of a shah’s tomb, Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Almost all the women standing are independents. That means that, like Ghawari, they have little money, no experience and no established network.

The regional bigwigs and established politicians may have terrorised the area where they’re standing or pocketed fortunes through corrupt dealings but they have the advantage of being well-known and, through patronage, they can find support among the men of influence in the towns and villages.

Ghawari and other women candidates in Kabul say that they’ve faced no intimidation or pressure while campaigning. But, they warn, that may not be the case in the provinces, especially the rural areas.

There women risk being chased off the street if they appear in public. What’s more women can’t go into the mosque to address Friday prayers. Many, though not all, mullahs preach against female participation in public life and, even without that, tradition militates against them.

And there’s also intimidation by warlords and the Taliban.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) reports that the husband of one female candidate in Baghlan province was jailed for two days without charge and later sacked from his job because he helped her campaign.

One woman election worker has been killed during the campaign. Other women report death threats and accusations that they are “American spies”.

Little wonder then that 51 women withdrew their candidacies for unspecified reasons before the campaign started.

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Herat seen from a taxi Photo: Tony Cross

No-one can escape evidence of the election in Herat. Candidates’ photographs and slogan-bearing banners hang from string stretched between the pine-trees which line the streets, so that the city looks as if it’s celebrating a particularly popular festival.

Posters are plastered all over any available wall-space – on the concrete and metal umbrellas erected at crossroads to provide traffic-police with shade and on what looks like a peace monument, a structure topped with a globe and four doves which stands at one of the main road junctions.

And they’re contributing to the deterioration of the city’s historic legacy.

Enthusiastic campaigners have fly-posted their candidates’ images onto centuries-old minarets, which have survived earthquake and war but are now threatened by vibrations from a nearby road – and by electoral politics.

The long road to Herat from the airport is lined by trees almost all the way, encouraging fantasies of entering at the head of a trader’s caravan or a conquering army.

You pass through villages with traditional mud-caked buildings, past a park crowded with painted, concrete benches but no people to sit on them and over a bridge which looks down on a broad river-bed, where motorists wash their vehicles in the narrow strip of river that the sun has so far failed to evaporate.

Herat’s a relief after Kabul. Its wide, tree-lined streets are relatively clean and uncongested. There’s less dust and more visible history, most noticeably the huge and beautiful mosque in the city centre.

My translator, Hoshang, is bowled over by the city’s cleanliness and its exotic Persian atmosphere. When we see a man smoking a shisha pipe in a restaurant, he asks me what the strange object is, never having seen one in Kabul or in Peshawar, the two cities he has lived in.

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Interior courtyard of Herat’s historic mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Clearly the governor who built the present seat of local government in the mid-20th century, didn’t want the home of secular power to be completely dwarfed by the mosque. It’s a rambling complex of brick-clad buildings, about as tall as the mosque and pleasant enough to look at, even if it can’t compete with the mosque’s tile-clad walls, which were decorated by craftsmen skilled in a 600-year-old art form.

It’s easy to gain access to high officials. Sitting in the corner of a large room, as a handful of officials administer the citizens who have come to petition him, deputy governor Mir Abdul Khalq, “call me Haj Mir because no-one in Herat will recognise me if you give me the full name”, offers cups of green tea and chats affably. But he says it would be better if I interview Governor Mohammed Khair Khuwa.

Unfortunately, the governor is in Kabul today, so we will have to come back tomorrow.

Haj Mir is a grey-bearded, wrinkled, smiling man, who chats freely about Herat. It is probably Afghanistan’s richest city and he boasts of its public buildings and housing.

I ask if supporters of Ismail Khan, who preceded Khuwa as governoror, still have much influence.

“Oh yes,” says Haj Mir. “I myself am a supporter of Ismail Khan and was with him for seven years during the war.”

This takes me aback since I’d understood that it had taken quite a power struggle for President Hamid Karzai, who was finally elected last year, to dislodge Khan from running the city last year.

Ismail Khan became governor of Herat province in 2001, after fighting the Russian occupation, being jailed by the Taliban and escaping to take control of Herat as the ultra-fundamentalist régime was bombed out of office.

During his governorship, there were many complaints about his warlord ways – a heavy hand with potential opposition and harsh treatment of women in the province.

Last year, there was heavy fighting between Khan’s fighters and those of a rival warlord, Amanullah Khan, a Pashtun. Kabul declared its support for Ismail but, shortly after the fighting ended, Karzai offered the victorious governor the post of minister of power and water – a poisoned promotion which dislodged him for his power-base.

Not everyone was glad to see him go. Riots followed his removal and Khuwa, a Hazara who arrived in town with guards from his own ethnic group, was obliged to take the oath of office in front of a picture of his predecessor.

Khan left behind a mixed reputation. He dealt with critics and suspected enemies in summary fashion – the head of the officially-backed human rights commission told us that, at the official opening of the organisation’s office in the city with national government ministers in attendance, a journalist was beaten up and dragged off to jail. Just so everyone knew who was boss, as it were.

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The entrance to the courtyard of the Jamja Masjid (Friday Mosque) in Herat Photo: Tony Cross

But the ex-governor is still respected for making Herat one of the best-run cities in the country. He paid for public works and efficient administration by collecting the handsome revenue from customs duties on the frontiers with neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan ¼ and refusing to pass any of the money on to Kabul.

Maybe it was that which inspired Karzai to conclude that the governor had to go, rather than the stories of armed tribal fighters doing as they wished on the city’s streets or women found alone with men being arrested and examined for signs of recent sexual intercourse.

But, once the rioting was over, the transition seems to have been relatively smooth.

Haj Mir seems to be working with his ex-boss’s successor and is happy to suggest that we interview the new head of security, Ayub Salangy, another out-of-towner who arrived two months ago accompanied by guards from his home province.

Of course, sending round a journalist may be the Haji’s idea of a practical joke; it turns out that Salangy is home sick today. But he agrees to see us.

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Herat’s Jama Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Delivered at Salangy’s house by a military vehicle, we find him in his garden, meeting leaders of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of the PRTs, the foreign military units that carry out aid projects, leading to complaints that they have made NGOs targets of possible guerrilla attacks.

We are shown into the house and wait in a living room so generously furnished that there is a TV at either end of the room.

On a table sits a photo mounted on curved glass with blue and gold edges. It shows the lieutenant-general embracing President Karzai as he arrives for a visit to Herat.

Salangy’s assistant assures us that the commander is a good friend of the president and gives us an outline of his employer’s career, which mostly consists of Karzai begging him to go to a number of troublesome provinces, with varying degrees of success. Salangy did serve in possibly the toughest posting, Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold at the time that they took power and still the scene of rebel activity, including a recent attempt to shoot down the president’s airplane.

When he finally meets us, Salangy doesn’t seem too ill. But he undoubtedly has a robust constitution. He’s a buffalo in a shalwar kameez; tall and broad, his hand swallows mine when we shake. Unusually for an Afghan, he is clean-shaven and his hair is cut short, adding to the youthful appearance of his face. It’s a surprising fact here that the men who have probably seen the most combat are the men with the most laugh-lines on their faces.

At some point in his career the lieutenant-general has picked up the art which the French call langue de bois. He studiously avoids giving any interesting answers to my questions: everything will go fine on election day; there are no serious security problems in the province; recent kidnappings and violence were in neighbouring provinces and not on his turf.

When I ask if he’s worried about the way the Americans have used the PRTs, he gently makes a fool of me by explaining that the people he was talking to were Italians, since they have taken over that work in Herat and the west of the country.

Asked if he sees himself as Karzai’s man in Herat, Salangy replies that he’s happy to represent the president and central government here.

But the question seems to have touched a sensitive spot. When I stop recording, the commander declares that, if I’ll permit it, it is his turn to pose a question.

“Who told you I was Karzai’s man?” he asks.

Hoping that the answer will not prove compromising for anyone involved, I tell him that his secretary told me that they were friends.

trainee cops visit herat mosque
A group of trainee police officers pose for a photo while visiting Herat’s famous mosque

Before leaving Herat, we take up Haj Mir’s suggestion and try to see the governor. It’s a long and fruitless process which entails visits to his offices, his home and, just before we leave, the recently-built governor’s mansion in the foothills of the mountains that overlook the city.

Persian script dug into the sides declares jihad the salvation of the faithful and what looks like a kilometre of steps lead up to a self-important dome perched on a rock. One gets the impression that this building is part of Ismail Khan’s legacy.

We’re already late for the rendezvous and, after an inconclusive argument with guards and our taxi-driver about whether we will have to walk up all those steps to the mansion in the baking heat, we conclude that there won’t be time for an interview if we’re to catch the plane to Kabul. As we race towards the airport, a phone-call reveals that the governor hasn’t actually left his home.

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A young boy at work in a Herat workshop Photo: Tony Cross

Both in Herat and Kabul, voters face a huge and confusing choice of candidates.

Ballot papers the size of broadsheet newspapers carry the names, pictures and symbols of hundreds of candidates for the Wolesi Jirga or the provincial councils; in Kabul’s case 390 for the national body and 216 for the provincial one.

Some 70-80% of voters are illiterate and, it being over 30 years since the last such elections, most of the population haven’t taken part in this sort of exercise before.

Of course, there was last year’s presidential election but that was a much simpler affair since only one post was up for grabs. The difference may not have sunk in to the popular consciousness – some punters have apparently told journalists that they intend to vote for Karzai this time round.

The process would have been even more complicated if the original plan to elect district councils at the same time had gone ahead. That vote was postponed. Not to spare the unfortunate electorate the struggle with a third enormous ballot paper. It’s just that the districts don’t really exist yet. Their boundaries haven’t been drawn and their populations have yet to be determined.

On the street most people seem keen to vote but no-one has much idea how to do it. Most Kabulis seem not to have chosen their candidate. In Herat more people seem to have made their choice for both the national and provincial assemblies.

In the cities, at least, no prejudice is expressed against women candidates. Several men declare that they are ready to vote for a woman and some say that they’ve already decided to do so.

Karzai apparently intervened personally to prevent party symbols being printed on the ballot papers, although an accompanying sheet does list the parties and their candidates. This is justified by arguing that it is political groups that have brought the country to its present condition. Karzai himself, of course, has no party although he does have a network of allies. His behind-the-scenes style of politics will probably be best suited by an atomised parliament, in which he can play off individuals or groups against each other.

The ban, along with a first-past-the-post voting system, favours a personality contest and undermines the possibility of a future development of parties formed on the basis of political platforms.

It strengthens candidates who are already well-known – religious leaders, ethnic or regional bosses and warlords, none of whom can be absolved from blame for Afghanistan’s woes.

But their notoriety may backfire, in some cases at least. Soraya Daqiqi, a woman candidate in Herat, says that village elders have told her that it’s time to give a woman a chance. “After all, look at what men have done for us – Timur Lang, Janghis Khan, and that German leader, Hitler.”

Other independent candidates also believe that they may benefit from an anti-warlord backlash.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the last few months and say that they will disrupt the election, although they say that they won’t attack voters.

Most of the violence has been clashes between their fighters and foreign or Afghan soldiers and it has mainly taken place in the south and east, where they still operate quite freely.

But seven candidates have been killed and there has been other election-related violence.

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Nomadic kuchis, who have reserved seats and special polling stations adapted to their way of life Photo: Tony Cross

And there’s concern about the number of former commanders, many of whom have been involved in atrocities, who are on the ballot papers. Only 11 candidates were disqualified for being militia leaders before the campaign began, while human rights campaigners claim that in many areas at least half of those standing are warlords.

The internationally-staffed Election Complaints Commission says that only those who have been convicted of crimes can be excluded, which seems reasonable until you remember how difficult it is for victims to obtain justice here.

Of course, there is no clear demarcation between the terms “warlord” and “mujahed” and many violent killers have been invaluable allies to Karzai and the US.

Analysts at the International Crisis Group claims that deals were struck with some commanders, allowing them to remain on the ballot papers in return for promises to collaborate with the official disarmament process.

Nevertheless, there are no reports of candidates actually bumping off their rivals.

That may be a sign of patience, rather than of born-again pacifism. A clause in the election law has become known as the “assassination clause”. It declares that after the poll, if an assembly member dies, the runner-up takes his or her place, giving rise to fears that some frustrated candidates may revert to their old habits to achieve the victory that the electoral process failed to deliver.

The electoral law is remarkably tolerant of practices which the Asian observers of Anfrel, who know a thing or two about money politics, claim “may be regarded as vote-buying in other countries”.

They describe electoral cards being bought from voters in some provinces and mullahs being offered money in return for their endorsement (one of them boasts that his backing would mean at least 5,000 votes for the lucky bidder).

Rich candidates are able to spend large sums on fleets of vehicles, election workers and other resources, while poorer candidates struggle to raise funds.

The Afghan semi-official observers’ organisation, Fefa, says it’s disappointed that a ban on handing out gifts is only valid on election day.

The Afghan fondness for a feast may indeed prove useful in courting the floating voter. Fefa says that one candidate, who owns a hotel, has been giving free lunches and dinners “almost every day” and has hosted one lunch with music and dancing for about 5,000 people.

Uzbek warlord General Abdel Rashid Dostum proved even more generous. He invited notables in Sherbergan province to a party “in honour of his father” which lasted for three days.

One candidate told Anfrel that he was worried about what the candidates will do to recoup their outlay. “Maybe robbery or drug-trafficking. They need to get the money that they spent back.”

The Election Commission says that it can’t ban such practices because they are part of the Afghan tradition of hospitality.

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Ramazan Bashardost (C) with supporters in a Kabul park Photo: Tony Cross

 strange noise disturbs the peace of Kabul’s Shah-e-Naw Park. It’s the horribly distorted sound of a television rigged up among the trees.

Nearby is a tent, which has been occupied by Ramazan Bashardost every day since he resigned from the post of minister of planning and launched a clean-government campaign.

Bashardost is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga and this is two days before polling day, well within the 48-hour period within which election campaigning has been banned, but he says that the video of him currently playing to a small audience is of a speech he made before the start of campaigning and so not in breach of election law.

Bashardost resigned in a row over the 2,355 NGOs which have mushroomed in Afghanistan in the war’s aftermath. The 2001 Tokyo reconstruction conference allotted them a third of foreign aid. But Bashardost compiled a list of 1,935 that he wanted to close, saying that many of them were fake, some operating for profit and not the benefit of Afghans, others just inefficient and nearly all spending most of the donors’ money on their staff salaries and operating costs rather than on the people they were supposed to help.

“About 70% of their budgets are used for administration or logistics or for a luxurious life,” Bashardost tells me. “There is NGOism in Afghanistan, like a Communist system. It is very strange that the Afghan poor people don’t have access to the directors of NGOs. I think it is more easy to meet Mr Karzai.”

When he was a minister he would send people to meet NGO chiefs.

“They returned to my office and say ‘Mr Minister, when the bodyguard is happy he took my paper and when the bodyguard is not happy he said very bad things to me and I couldn’t see the director’.”

Now he says that Afghanistan is run by a new nomenklatura of NGO bosses, UN and US officials, international military chiefs, Afghan warlords and government ministers.

“It is a very dangerous situation because $12 billion has arrived in Afghanistan since two years and the Afghan people believe that there is not reconstruction. I think that some people say ‘My life is now more bad than three years ago’. This nomenkaltura shares the money between its members and we’re losing the chance to show a good cooperation between Western countries and a Muslim country.”

Although he was educated abroad and speaks English and French, Bashardost mistrusts returned exiles as much as he mistrusts warlords, claiming that many have only returned for business opportunities and that those who are standing for the Wolesi Jirga are motivated by commercial, rather than political, interest.

Bashardost believes the multi-national mafia is also complicit in the drugs trade.

Since the US-led invasion, Afghanistan has returned to the top of the world league of opium-poppy growers, providing most of the heroin sold in Europe and much of Asia.

The ex-minister says that only one per-cent of the profits go to Afghan farmers and that local and international officials are involved in it.

“The new parliament may be a narco-parliament,” he says and slams Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and President Karzai for saying top officials, including six governors, were involved in drug trafficking but refusing to name them, let alone take action against them.

Few candidates speak as freely or directly as Bashardost. Those with dubious pasts – or presents – use portentous declarations to avoid addressing embarrassing subjects. And, in a country in which guns rather than discussion have decided political issues for so many years, new candidates lack any experience of real political debate. When faced with a microphone, most either launch into long autobiographies, give accounts of their educational qualifications or make vague statements about ending the violence and rooting out corruption in exactly the same terms that their rivals use.

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Voters in Shah Shaheen Photo: Tony Cross

18 September, election day. At the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which is a polling station for the day, voters are encouraged to do their civic duty by music broadcast from tinny loudspeakers and banners bearing inspirational messages such as “Let’s join together to participate in the parliamentary election which is a legislative organ and one of the three pillars of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”.

But the official enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have rubbed off onto the electorate. At 8.10am, just over two hours since the polls opened, there are few voters here, an astonishing contrast to the long queues to vote in the presidential election.

Inside the building a young election official says that it’s early yet, there’s still time, and assures us that voters have had no difficulty with the complicated voting procedure.

As he speaks, a man in a voting booth behind him is turning his ballot paper this way and that with a mystified air. He calls to an official to come and explain what he should do.

Outside two young men tell us that they have voted for Bashardost because they believe he is honest, while others won’t name their choice.

When we leave the building, SUVs have blocked off the street and armed guards stand outside the polling station. US ambassador Ronald Neumann is here.

He declares the day a triumph.

“Four years ago they were killing women with stones in the sports stadium and today women are running their separate polling places here next door to the men’s polling places.”

What does the ambassador think of the presence of alleged warlords on the ballot papers?

“I think people get to actually vote, so if they don’t want to vote for a warlord they don’t have to, they can vote for somebody else.”

So, even if a candidate has blood on his hands, he should be allowed to stand?

The tone becomes slightly less affable.

“No, I don’t think that’s a correct statement. I think what you need to understand is that this is the first time that they’ve tried to run a process by rules. And it’s a country where you don’t have full evidence, so sometimes you don’t get the result that you would ideally like, just as sometimes, in your country or mine, somebody may go free in a trial where you think they should have been convicted.”

Neumann gives the impression that, so far as he’s concerned, there have been exhaustive legal efforts to find war-criminals and that they are now over.

“The fact is that they did run a process by rules … and that’s a big, important step in the transition to building a rule-based system of law.”

More voters turn out as the day goes on but there are nowhere near last year’s number.

At Shah Shaheen nobody will tell us who their choice was, although one man says that he’s voted for a woman and a man, while the women, all clad in blue burkas, huddle in a short line at the side of the polling station.

The women at Fourth Makoryan, a middle-class district, are more assertive. Many of the polling officers and voters are elegantly dressed, some wearing smart trouser suits with headscarves.

One, who’s enjoying the sun after casting her ballot, proudly declares that she has voted for a woman candidate.

“We all want to vote for women because women are the ones who care for women,” she says.

But she’s not sure how much things will change for women after the election.

“Maybe yes, maybe no. In Kabul the women vote but in some other provinces some of them don’t vote. I hope that they all vote and the women win.”

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Traditional Afghan buildings in Dehyaya Photo: Tony Cross

In Dehyaya, a village outside Kabul, we don’t see any women. To get there we have to turn off the fine new road that the American military have built to get to their base at Bagram airfield and on to a track across the dusty plain that lies between ranges of Afghanistan’s cruelly beautiful mountains.

The stones crunch under the weight of our four-wheel drive and the dust gets everywhere – into the car, into our hair, into our nostrils.

We follow the track round a bend and find the beginning of the village.

It’s made up of traditional Afghan dwellings; huge compounds hidden behind walls several hundred metres long.

They’re covered in dried mud, made out of desert dirt, and they look as if they have grown out of this unworldly, grey-brown landscape.

As a scorching sun burns the last drops of moisture from the land, we look down a long, straight street, flanked by long, straight mud walls, heading towards a distant perspective point.

There’s not a soul to be seen; it’s like High Noon – only with more dust.

Who knows how people scratch a living out of this arid landscape but the village seems to be large, even if you take into account the size of the compounds.

One thing’s for sure, land can’t be very expensive round here.

Down the street and around a bend, we come across a petrol station.

It’s deserted, too, but there are signs of election activity – candidates’ posters have been pasted on its walls and on the sign at its entrance.

The largest is one of Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.

He’s a notorious militia leader, whom human-rights campaigners have demanded be taken off the ballot paper, because of his alleged brutality during the war.

In the days of the fight against Russian occupation, Sayyaf was a friend of Osama ben Laden and mixed with the hard-line Islamists who received US funding for their anti-Communist jihad.

But, despite his dubious past, he has stayed in the running.

His position can’t have been hindered by the fact that he has recently acted as an adviser to Karzai, doing his best to keep Afghanistan’s legal system true to his severe interpretation of Islam.

A bit further down the street, and at last there are signs of life.

A small crowd of men and boys has gathered in front of the school, where voting is taking place.

As we go into the building, Hoshang suggests that maybe we shouldn’t stay too long.

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Dehyaya from the mountain Photo: Tony Cross

“Taliban fire rockets at Kabul from these mountains.”

Inside, however, all is running smoothly, if not very busily, and the polling officers say that there have been no threats or intimidation.

One of the voters is a former mujahed. He won’t name the person he voted for but says that “he is my friend from the jihad time”. But, like all ordinary voters what he wants most is peace – “No more fighting in my country”.

To get back to Kabul, we’re told to go over the mountain.

As we climb the slope, we can at last see some patches of green in the village, hidden behind some of those long walls.

When our wheels get stuck in the dirt half way up the slope, I wonder if I should duck down in the back if men with guns appear or whether they’ll see me anyway. But they don’t appear and, when the car climbs over the peak, we see an inscription dug into the hillside.

I ask if this is another call to jihad, like the ones we saw outside Herat.

Hoshang squints at the writing. “No,” he replies, “it says ‘carwash’.”

And there, just below it, is a huge car lot, the vehicles glistening in the sun, and, beyond it, the grubby bustle of Kabul.

On our return, we hear that three rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the mountains during the morning.

Two failed to explode. One of them hit a UN compound and injured one person, although not seriously.

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A photographer shows off his antique camera in Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

 

Turnout is low throughout the country. Officials claim about 50%, some sceptics put it as low as 35% and claim that there were no votes at all in some parts of the south, where the Taliban are active.

The electoral commission says that seven polling stations never opened at all, apparently because the security services were too scared to protect them. Security worries led to a temporary disruption of the vote in many other places and there are already allegations of fraud.

Apparently anticipating a wave of enthusiasm throughout the land, the electoral commission made a last-minute decision to bring forward the start of the vote an hour. Unfortunately, the decision didn’t get through to all voting officials, some of whom arrived, bleary-eyed, at 7.00am or later, to find impatient voters waiting for them or to hear that some had already given up.

Piqued, perhaps, by criticism of the small number of candidates banned from standing, officials took another 28 off the ballot paper during the week before the vote. Human rights groups weren’t mollified, claiming that they weren’t the roughly 150 warlords and thugs that they had in mind.

And, unfortunately, the list of these late removals was either not posted up at many voting centres or put in a position which hardly anyone saw. Even where it was visible it was meaningless to the illiterate majority of voters.

To add to the confusion, two candidates were put back onto the ballot, one because he had been confused with someone else of the same name.

Now the votes have to be gathered in, using donkeys and helicopters to bring them down from the most remote mountain villages. Definitive results are not expected for at least a month and the absence of debate and clearly defined political camps makes it difficult to guess what the Wolesi Jirga will look like.

kabul street
A Kabul street Photo: Tony Cross

Robert Kluyver, a fluent Dari-speaker and former UN worker who has set up the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society and also represents George Soros’s Open Society Institute, believes there are three main reasons for the low turnout. Many candidates were unknown and discouraging political parties added to confusion about what they might stand for, many hopes that were raised by last year’s presidential election have already been disappointed and in some areas, especially the cities, there’s suspicion that the results were rigged in advance.

“While a lot of candidates were ex-fighters, either mujahedin or Communists, I think that there will be a strong presence of civil society.”

But he believes that the parliament will be weak.

“With this low voter-turnout they will lack the political legitimacy they need. This parliament doesn’t have any clearly defined functions. Thirdly, the parliamentarians won’t have any experience in conducting parliamentary affairs and I think that there will be a strong tendency for the parliament to be bogged down in local issues, for example about schools and hospitals in particular districts, because that’s very much how the candidates now see themselves, representing the interests of their local community.”

He believes that, although most Afghans are sick of religious interference in politics, there will be a bloc of representatives who will push a hard-line position on issues such as sharia law.

And what of the question that voter after voter raised during the campaign – the warlords’ hold on the country?

Saman Zia-Zarifi is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch. Being of Iranian origin, he can speak Dari and has come to observe the election along with a team from the high profile US-based group.

He says that most voters had to choose between unknown candidates and notorious ones.

Zia-Zarifi is bitterly critical of the election complaints commission’s failure to strike “warlords, former military commanders and human-rights abusers” from the ballot.

“It created a certain amount of confusion and even questions about the political nature of this process,” he says and concludes. “It remains to be seen if the Afghan electors have achieved what the electoral commission failed to do.”

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