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November 19, 2002

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The Rediff Exclusive/Shyam Bhatia

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's personal intervention was a key factor in confirming her country's suspension from the Commonwealth. Bhutto's role, as revealed by sources within the Commonwealth Secretariat, provides a unique and fascinating insight into the cut and thrust of diplomatic exchanges during meetings of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in London on October 31 and November 1.

Her intervention in the form of a letter to Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon swayed the mood of ministers, a source told rediff, subsequently prompting Botswana Foreign Minister Mompati Merafhe to comment, "It would be premature to conclude that democracy has been restored to Pakistan."

The CMAG was set up in 1995 as a committee to monitor and promote fundamental Commonwealth values, such as democracy, democratic institutions and processes. In recent years political developments in Nigeria, Fiji, Zimbabwe, the Solomon Islands, and Pakistan have been at the forefront of CMAG's interest.

When the CMAG, which includes India's External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, met in London in October last, the issue of restoring Pakistan to full membership of the Commonwealth was at the top of the agenda, following Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's decision to permit national and provincial assembly elections in his country.

Sinha's contention that the Pakistani elections were "deeply flawed" did not strike home with CMAG ministers when they assembled for dinner at McKinnon's London home on October 31.

In fact, according to sources within the Commonwealth Secretariat, India was in a minority of one and the mood of the rest of the group was at the very least to welcome the Pakistani elections and anticipate the return of Islamabad to the Commonwealth fold.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer took the lead in favour of Pakistan, arguing that Pakistan should be welcomed back to the Commonwealth as soon as possible.

Downer is one of eight foreign Ministers currently represented on CMAG. The others are India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Botswana, Malta, Samoa, and the Bahamas.

Actively supported by Bangladesh, Samoa, and the Bahamas, Downer privately told secretariat officials that Australian troops serving along the Afghanistan border were grateful for the support they had received from the Pakistani authorities. Canberra's view was that they should reciprocate this support by helping to usher Pakistan back into the Commonwealth.

In response to the argument that Pakistani democracy was severely limited by President Musharraf's decision to retain ultimate power by reserving the right to dismiss any elected government, Downer replied that the Pakistani president's constitutional powers were no different from those of the British monarch.

But Downer was silenced after McKinnon then circulated a letter he had received from Bhutto. In her letter, extracts of which are exclusively reproduced by rediff, Bhutto characterised the recent elections in her country as "deeply flawed", adding that they had been "stolen by the ruling Generals."

Her letter starts: "I write about the controversial recent elections in Pakistan seeking your understanding and support in saving my country's democratic future."

She adds, "The Musharraf regime, through the intelligence service, tick marked names of candidates that were to be declared victorious. They handed the areas bordering Afghanistan to the religious parties. They reduced the majorities of the two leading parties deliberately. I fear this was done to continue the dual policy of supporting the West overseas and supporting the extremists at home."

Bhutto went on to say, "I fear for the future of my country with the deliberate marginalisation of the democratic forces. The choice for the Pakistani people ought to be between one political party and another. Sadly, the choice is not even between dictatorship and democracy. It is fast becoming one between the military and the religious parties. Given that the military was in power for the last three years, public disaffection may find expression in the religious parties.

"The Musharraf regime calibrated the results carefully. It hopes to use the domination of the religious parties to frighten the world community into supporting the dictatorship. It is doing so at the terrible cost of abandoning the people to the religious parties as the sole force capable of confronting it and giving expression to public dismay with the rulers."

The CMAG were all too aware of an earlier 'yellow card' on the elections issued to Musharraf by the Malaysian head of the Commonwealth Observer Group, Tan Sri Musa Hitam, who commented, "It is apparent that certain measures have been enacted which have a limited effect on the process of restoring democracy (in Pakistan) the Observer Group cannot overlook these measures as they form the framework of the election."

Hitam's comments, followed by Bhutto's letter, were seized upon by Nigerian Foreign Minister Sule Lamido as a reason for continuing with Pakistan's suspension. Other ministers agreed.

Pakistan's suspension will now be reviewed in six month's time at CMAG's next meeting.

More reports from Pakistan

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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