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Hassan Malik: Pakistan’s Opiate of the Masses

The recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, striking down a previous agreement that granted immunity from prosecution for corruption to thousands of bureaucrats and politicians, was greeted with cheers by Pakistanis, both in the streets of Karachi and amongst the diaspora in London, but with discomfort in the West. More astute analysts, however, are concerned that the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t herald a step forward, but rather a descent back into the tussle of recriminations and accusations that have long characterized Pakistani politics.  Worse, it threatens to distract national attention from far more pressing problems. The court struck down the National Reconciliation Order (NRO) that was passed in 2007 under Western-backed President Musharraf and was billed at the time as a step towards restoring Pakistan to multiparty democracy. Although political players of all parties benefited from the deal, observers saw it largely as a compromise aimed at enabling the return to Pakistan of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Pakistan's current president, Asif Ali Zardari. After Mrs. Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, a wave of sympathy for her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) helped Zardari take over de facto leadership of the PPP and the presidency of the country in quick succession. But Zardari hardly enjoyed a honeymoon with voters or, for that matter, even his own party leadership. Lacking what some would term the demagogic charisma of his late wife or father-in-law, Zardari was hardly Obama-esque. His reputation as Mr. Ten Percent—earned by his penchant for demanding bribes while serving as his wife's minister for investment and minister for the environment in the mid-1990s—won him many enemies and, along with his appointments of cronies to top government and party posts, grated on members of the PPP itself. Upon taking office, Zardari's reluctance to restore the popular and respected ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry—widely seen as a last-ditch attempt to avoid prosecution for corruption—further eroded what little support he did enjoy. Only after mass, nation-wide protests did Zardari eventually relent and agree to the restoration of the chief justice to his office. The repeal of the NRO, then, comes as a long-awaited victory for many sections of Pakistani society, from secular middle-class civil society activists to mullahs fed up with Zardari's poor record and aggravated by his repeated evasion of corruption charges. The concern, however, is that on a deeper level, the hoopla over the NRO shows just how much Pakistan's political life is stagnating.

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