Forced exile seems a preferred response to political criticism in Pakistan, writes Iffat Idris
On Tuesday Shahbaz Sharif, former chief minister of Punjab and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was escorted into exile for the second time. Political dramas like these: worrying harbingers on the state of democracy in Pakistan.
The drama took place at Lahore Airport on Tuesday evening. Shahbaz Sharif first went into exile in Saudi Arabia along with his brother and other family members after the military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power. According to the military government, the Sharifs signed an agreement to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years. Saudi Arabia agreed to act as host for the Sharifs, on the behest of the Pakistan government.
Last year Shahbaz Sharif was allowed to leave Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in the US. From there he moved to London, where for months he was publicly making plans to return to Pakistan. His path was cleared by a Supreme Court ruling, which stated that he should be allowed to come to Pakistan, but that he would have to answer certain charges against him. The most important of these is of complicity in the murder of five men, killed while Shahbaz was chief minister of Punjab.
Shahbaz, who has since his family's forced exile taken over the presidency of the PML-N Party from his brother, was keen to revive his political career inside Pakistan. He announced to reporters as he was boarding a plane in London that he was prepared to answer all charges against him. Shahbaz Sharif's gamble was that even if the Musharraf government arrested him he would be able to make political mileage out of his detention and trial. He was also anticipating a big welcome by PML-N activists and supporters in Pakistan; akin, perhaps, to the crowds that greeted Benazir Bhutto on her return from exile in the late 1980s.
The Musharraf government, however, had other plans. Supporters of the PML-N were arrested by police or prevented from getting to Lahore Airport. In parts of the city, there were clashes between them and the police. Meanwhile, soon after Shahbaz Sharif's plane touched down at Lahore Airport he was whisked away by security forces into a waiting plane that took him straight back into exile in Saudi Arabia. Journalists accompanying the PML-N president were also detained for some time, their tapes and films seized.
Shahbaz Sharif has been silent since his return to exile -- a sign that the Saudis are keeping a vigilant eye on their prodigal guest. Others, however, have been speaking out. Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, information minister, defended the government's action on the grounds that Shahbaz had signed an agreement not to return to Pakistan for 10 years. Opposition politicians and other critics challenged that argument. They demanded that the government reveal the text of the agreement. Even if it does exist, many question the constitutional status and legality of such an unconventional agreement. The government has so far refused to make it public.
The second main charge being levelled against the government is that, yet again, it is stifling democracy in Pakistan. This charge stems not just from the deportation of Shahbaz Sharif, but also from the heavy-handed treatment of supporters and journalists. One commentator noted: "The thin façade of democracy in Pakistan has been blown away -- the fig leaf is gone."
"Democratic rule" was restored in Pakistan in October 2002, after elections for the National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies and the subsequent formation of a civilian government led by Prime Minister Jamali. But despite this, there remains the perception that President Musharraf is the "real boss", the Jamali government merely a front to silence domestic and international critics. The Pakistani authorities' response to Shahbaz Sharif's return is seen as confirmation of this: Musharraf is unwilling to allow a free political opposition.
There is a big difference between what happened to Sharif, however, and previous "democracy-stifling" steps taken by Pakistani governments. First, it was covered extensively on TV, and not only by the state television channels but private Pakistani channels operating out of Dubai. Channels like Geo and ARY have revolutionised programming in Pakistan, giving viewers images and opinions they would never have seen or heard on state TV. The deportation of Shahbaz Sharif was covered live by these channels (though cameras could not gain access to the PML-N leader himself), and it was extensively discussed.
In one discussion programme a parliamentary member of the opposition PPP, led by Benazir Bhutto, expressed solidarity with Shahbaz Sharif. Raja Pervez Ashraf claimed that all opposition politicians, be they the PML-N, PPP, MMA or other parties, supported Shahbaz Sharif's right to return and condemned the government's action. He claimed that the opposition had been united by its shared commitment to democracy.
Ashraf's own leader, Benazir Bhutto, has been in exile for many years. She divides her time between Dubai and London. Her exile is self-appointed. Bhutto faces serious corruption charges in Pakistan. Should she decide to return she would almost certainly be arrested. Her husband, Asif Zardari, has been in detention, answering numerous charges, since 1996. He was first imprisoned by Nawaz Sharif after the latter succeeded Bhutto as prime minister.
A common pattern seems to emerge: of a Pakistani practice that deals with political rivals either by throwing them in jail or sending them into exile. For a president already bearing other pressures, silencing political opponents means one less headache.