BY SHASHI MALLA
A terrorist suicide bomber killed more than 128 people at an election campaign rally in south-western Pakistan, being the deadliest attack in the country since 2014 and ahead of the general elections on July 25. The so-called Islamic State (IS) claimed the deadly attack. Among those killed was Balochistan provincial assembly candidate Siraj Raisani of the “Balochistan Awami Party”. These latest attacks and election-related confrontation have triggered tensions ahead of an election already mired in controversy.
In the meantime, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were arrested in Lahore after flying home from London. The three-term PM was ousted last year after a corruption investigation. Last week he was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison. He has accused Pakistan’s powerful security establishment — ‘a state within a state’ — of conspiring against him ahead of the elections. Lahore, capital of Punjab, the most populous province, had been under lockdown by the authorities to prevent Sharif’s supporters from staging a huge welcome for him. Clashes had already broken out between them and the security forces at the main highway.
Meanwhile, the stage had already been set for an enormous burst of censorship of TV channels, newspapers and social media. Newspaper kiosks have been indiscriminately shut down. Symptomatic for this state of affairs is the fate of “Dawn”, Pakistan’s largest and most-prestigious English-language newspaper. Its distribution remains suspended across large parts of urban Pakistan. It has virtually disappeared from their breakfast tables. Imagine waking up in London without “The Times”, or in New York without “The New York Times”, or in New Delhi without “The Hindusthan Times”, or in Kathmandu without “The Rising Nepal”, . . . and so forth!
Previously, an escalating war of words and nerves had broken out between deposed premier Nawaz Sharif and the powerful military establishment. This was preceded by Sharif’s interview in “Dawn” last May in which he questioned the wisdom of “allowing” Pakistan militants to cross the Pakistan-India border and kill 150 people in Mumbai in 2008. He had also questioned why the mastermind of these attacks was first arrested, but subsequently released. This was tantamount to ‘military treason’ and Sharif and his supporters — real and imagined — have been targeted. It has also been surmised that the military feels intimated that the background of the origins of the 1999 Pakistan-India limited Kargil war (in disputed Kashmir), as well as the ramifications of the country’s largest business empire under the military may emerge to their detriment.
One of the main contenders in the election is cricketer-turned-politician and former opposition leader Imran Khan, now the darling of the military. He has promised to create a “new Pakistan” where all citizens were held accountable irrespective of their backgrounds. He also said he wanted to improve access to education and healthcare, as well as promote tax collection and reduce corruption. In the last parliament his PTI party held only 32 seats, compared with 186 of Sharif’s ruling “Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz “ (PML-N). Khan has faced accusations of being soft on Islamist extremism, at one stage earning the sobriquet “Taliban Khan”. He has rejected such claims, saying he has merely advocated peace talks with insurgent groups as a way of resolving conflict within Pakistan.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), is standing for parliament for the first time. The son of assassinated former PM Benazir Bhutto has said he hopes to implement her vision of a “peaceful, progressive, prosperous, democratic Pakistan”. Ms Bhutto was killed by a terrorist suicide bomber at a rally in Islamabad in 2007 under mysterious circumstances. Bhutto Zardari, 29, was appointed as joint leader of the PPP shortly after his mother’s demise, alongside his father Asif Ali Zardari, who went on to become two-term president. He is the third generation of his family to enter politics, his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto having served as prime minister in the 1970s and subsequently being executed by military strongman and strict Islamist General Zia-ul Haq, who himself died in a plane crash.
Like his mother, the suave and dynamic Bhutto Zardari is an Oxford graduate. Despite his family’s turbulent history, he insists he was not afraid of taking a leading political position. The PPP still retains support amongst the rural class, particularly in their stronghold in the southern province of Sindh. However, in the most populous province Punjab, they have lost much support after their last term in office because of poor performance. Since being out of government and thus being unable to provide the spoils of office, even the PML-N will lose voters to the PTI, also buoyed up by the palpable helping hand of the military establishment.
Thus, it is expected that Imran Khan’s PTI will come out on top followed by Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and Bhutto Zardari’s PPP, resulting in a hung parliament. In the resulting coalition negotiations, the PPP could very well play the role of ‘kingmaker’.
NATO, US & Germany
Last week, as Western leaders gathered in Brussels for a NATO summit, US President Donald Trump accused Germany of being a “captive” of Russia. In a startling public outburst, Trump told NATO- Secretary Genral Jens Stoltenberg that Germany was ill-advised to promote a new US Dollar 11-billion Baltic Sea pipeline to import Russian gas while being slow to meet targets for contributing to NATO defence spending that was intended to protect Europe from Russia. Ironically, Trump himself may have colluded with Russia during his election campaign.
Trump explicitly said: “We’re protecting Germany, we’re protecting France, we’re protecting all of these countries. And then numerous of the countries go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia where they’re paying billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia . . . I think that’s very inappropriate.” Trump also said Germany’s closure of coal and nuclear power plants on environmental grounds had increased its dependence, like much of the rest of Europe, on Russian gas. He also commented: “Germany is totally controlled by Russia because they are getting 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline.”
Invariably and deliberately, Trump got his facts completely wrong. First, the Baltic pipeline — “Nord Stream 2 — to be laid on the bed of the sea is not even completed. Second, currently only about 20 percent of German energy use is accounted for by oil and gas imports from Russia. Third, Germany far from being a “captive” of Russia, is leading the European Union (EU) move for strict sanctions after Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
Be that as it may, but Trump turned the NATO summit into a showdown with NATO, the EU, and above all, Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel. He even threatened to withdraw the US from the alliance. He not only doubted the relevance of NATO, but cast doubts about its very existence. He even had the audacity to advise British PM Theresa May to sue the EU, and then to berate her publicly for not taking such wise counsel! He has demonstrated time and again that he has no use for either allies or partners.
According to the German news magazine “Der Spiegel”: “The US president seems to view Germany with a mixture of jealousy, admiration and anger.” Paradoxically, he himself is half-German on the father’s side. Trump believes that Germany’s economic success is mainly the result of its ability at exploiting Americans. It is also not spending enough on defence in order to finance its economic development and social security!
The German government and also the general public are exasperated with Trump’s constant rebukes and insults. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas countered pointedly: “We are not prisoners — neither of Russia nor of the US — We make decisions about our budget, our
energy supply and our trade relations freely, in a sovereign manner and on the basis of facts.”
It is quite possible that Trump is irritated with Germany’s mixture of political stability, societal cohesion, economic strength and military restraint. Trump is too stupid and also arrogant to realize that he has taken America on the moral low ground. He is disrupting and destroying — left, right and centre — without preserving, creating and developing. It is telling that Republican Senator John McCain has characterized the recent Trump-Putin summit in Helsenki as a “ pathetic rout”, “tragic mistake” and “painful”. [full comment next week] The columnist can be reached at: email@example.com