January issue 2009
Pakistan in 2008: Divided We Stand
Pakistan witnessed further fragmentation in 2008. For a while, it seemed that a uniting government bringing the two major political parties together would last. The disintegration of this grand coalition was a mirror of the differences that threatened to split the country. Civil-military relations worsened and the growing militancy poses the greatest threat to the survival of the country. And yet, through it all, Pakistan still stands, divided, but not torn apart.
THE PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN: Elections in Pakistan are usually a boisterous affair. But with the death of Benazir Bhutto, the on-going judicial crisis and the emergency imposed by then-president Musharraf, the February 18 elections were an unusually sombre affair. Even the ISI decided to sit this one out, with very few incidents of official manipulation. The PPP managed to win the most seats and formed a coalition government.
DOWN AND OUT: After enduring a couple of years where controversy dogged him at every turn, from the dismissal of the chief justice and the subsequent lawyers’ movement to his imposition of a state of emergency and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pervez Musharraf finally resigned as president of Pakistan on August 18. In a long resignation speech, he listed his achievements in the spheres of national security, the economy and arts and culture, among others.
NEW MAN IN: Despite his repeated protestations that he had no interest in seeking higher office, Asif Zardari eventually concluded that his party and country needed him to take over as president. On September 9, he took the oath of office after winning approval from both houses of parliament. All his talk of clipping the powers of the presidency subsided thereafter.
PARTNERS IN FEUD: In the euphoria surrounding the decisive rejection of Pervez Musharraf in the national elections, it seemed a new permanent alliance had been formed by two former rivals. On the surface, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif seemed to agree on everything, including the restoration of the pre-October 8 judiciary. But behind the scenes a fresh political crisis was brewing. Soon it came out into the open. Zardari reneged on his agreements, claiming that he was not bound by them as they were not sacrosanct like the Quran and the hadith. Nawaz Sharif responded by withdrawing from the government. The new dawn of unity proved to be a false one.
OLYMPIC SPIRIT: The moment was loaded with irony. The Olympic torch made its way to Pakistan for the first time and every publicity-hungry politician wanted to be pictured holding this symbol of world unity. The problem: the executive, symbolised by Musharraf, was on the verge of being eased out by the new legislature and its head, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani. In a rare display of compromise, the two were pictured holding the famed torch together.
TERRORIST OR VICTIM? Is she an Al-Qaeda operative or an innocent woman tortured by the paranoid Americans? The Aafia Siddiqui saga captured the imagination of the Pakistani public in a way few other ‘missing persons’ cases have. This MIT-educated doctor mysteriously disappeared a few years ago, only to be captured in Afghanistan earlier this year, supposedly in the act of shooting at US soldiers. With Aafia safely hidden away in the bowels of the US prison system, it seems the truth may never emerge.
A HOTEL IN FLAMES: In a year where suicide bombings became an everyday occurrence, no attack had quite the impact of the September 20 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. A dump truck filled to the brim with explosives detonated in front of the hotel, causing massive structural damage to the hotel and killing 54 people.
TORN ASUNDER: Although not as destructive as the 2005 earthquake, the earthquake that hit Ziarat and other parts of Balochistan on October 28 measured 6.5 on the Richter scale, took over 200 lives and left thousands homeless and subject to fast spreading disease.
THE DOPING SAGA: Stopping over in Dubai after participating in the Indian Premier League, Pakistani pacer Mohammed Asif was detained by airport authorities for carrying opium in his wallet. At first, Asif pleaded ignorance. He later amended his story to say that the opium was medicine given to him by his hakim. Soon after, Asif tested positive for a banned substance, virtually ensuring the end of his career.
CITY OF DARKNESS: It was another eventful year for KESC as ownership of the utility company changed hands once again, this time going to the Middle East-based Abraaj. The change in ownership did not mean an end to the company’s woes. A dispute with WAPDA over unpaid dues led to a complete cessation of electricity supply to the city for a couple of days. KESC also continued to tussle with the city government over billing. The net loser in all this was the average Karachiite, who had to endure another year of loadshedding and frequent breakdowns.
ECONOMIC COMA: The Karachi Stock Exchange, and indeed the Pakistani economy as a whole, was not immune to the destructive global economic crisis. After years of unmatched profits, Pakistani stockbrokers panicked when the KSE took a nosedive. Not accustomed to losing money, they suspended work, convinced the government to institute a floor below which the stock exchange cannot drop and pleaded for a massive bailout.
SHUTTERS DOWN: Tensions between the muhajir and Pathan communities had been simmering for some time before it finally broke out into the open in November. For four straight days, the city came to a standstill as schools closed, shops were shuttered and transport came to a halt. All told, over a dozen people lost their lives in the ethnic violence.
LOSING STEAM: 2008 was not a good year for the lawyers’ movement. Asif Zardari reneged on his promise to restore the judiciary and the public support for the movement dwindled. Lawyers also received tons of negative publicity for beating up former minister Sher Afghan, despite the protestations of Aitzaz Ahsan. The low point of the movement was an outbreak of violence between rival groups of lawyers in Karachi that claimed nearly 10 lives.
Related: The World in 2008
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.