Who rules Pakistan?

The country's democracy is a veneer for the shady controlling forces that sit behind it.

Who rules Pakistan? Leaving aside a degree of fast-footing by the civil servants, it is the intelligence services, linked to the army. In the last 20 years, civilian governments have had no muscle to pass legislation. The present Zardari administration, as all civilian administrations have been, is cowed. Democracy has never stood a chance because ministers are constantly under threat from the army's and Inter-Services Intelligence's (ISI) dictates. Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti steadfastly refused to toe their line and do their bidding and that is why they received constant death threats, from the time they came into office.

The latest announcement from the administration is not who will replace Shahbaz Bhatti as Minister for Minorities. Rather, Rehman Malik, the interior minister, announced that henceforth, artists, students and journalists travelling abroad will need a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) from the government. There is something hauntingly Soviet about this, and no surprise that Russian-style activity and their textbook approach to state control -- disinformation through the press, propaganda, bare-faced lying, the spreading of fear - has ratcheted up. Unbelievably the story that the ISI appear to have put out through the clerics -- in a tit for tat for the Davis affair -- is that a 'US-led conspiracy' was behind Bhatti's assassination.

Pakistan's weapon of state control has long been disinformation but now it is fear and it is getting worse, not better.

It is also a question of spreading the blame. Spitting out its own pips, the ISI doesn't want Musharaff back in Pakistan to contest elections. A third anti-terror warrant, news of which has now been pulled from Pakistan news sites, has been issued against him for association with the murder of Benazir Bhutto. Here is the second.

Many in Pakistan believe that the extremist goons who killed Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minorities, on 2 March, leaving leaflets at the site, and Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, on 4 January, were little more than execution squads for the ISI.

Across the Arab world, the protests have been against the control of secret police and the secret state, although there have so far been no murmurings from Syria, which has the tightest and deepest of all. Pakistan, on the surface so different with its subcontinental character and gentle people, has in the last months been shown up as a state as deep as any on the old Ottoman model. It's increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the ulemas, secret police, crack-corps janissaries and ghazis (the blood-crazed dedicated to fighting infidels or non believers) of the sunni Ottoman empire and Pakistan 's modern state.

Extremism takes few victims in Pakistan -- outside of the frontline border provinces of FATA mortalities were estimated by AP to be about 1200 a year, in a population of 170 million -- but it has the desired effect of terrorising and silencing the population. Those mad mullahs, those thuggish execution squads high on drugs (the word 'assassin' curiously comes from the Arabic 'hashshashin', literally 'hasheaters'), the official state propaganda - thousands of lawyers prepared to stand up for Taseer's killer Mumtaz Qadri, the army protecting the nation against extremists, Punjab Taliban out of control. If it isn't paid rent-a-crowds with television cameras in sight, it is as wretched as the telephone call reportedly made to Shahbaz Bhatti by the security services hours before, to tell him that they knew there was a plot to kill him. After this was done -- if the rumours are to be believed -- they went ahead.

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.

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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.