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Elections past

March 27, 2013

IT seemed to be a terrible risk. When Benazir Bhutto decided to return to Pakistan in 2007 amid the drumbeats of another election, the threat of arrest, of infamy, of terrorist attacks all lurked unhappily around.

The announcement of her return was made in Islamabad, by a then leader of the PPP. The date, he said, would be October 18 and the party workers gathered around in anticipation of the announcement cheered when they heard it. It was to be a new era for Pakistan.

Karachi was edgy before that homecoming. So much had happened between the end years of the old millennium when she left, and the seventh year of the new one when she was to return. In 2007, Pakistan stood on the cusp of a new conflict and a new geopolitical arrangement.

In the years she had been absent, terrorism had hit the inside of mosques. The sons of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and passports meant for family members of Osama bin Laden had been found in a house near Tariq Road. Ramzi Bin Al Shibh, the Al Qaeda operative responsible for coordinating the 9/11 attacks, had been caught after a siege in an apartment building in Defence Housing Society and the body of Daniel Pearl discovered in a shallow grave on the outskirts of Karachi. The city that Benazir had left had been riddled by ethnic conflict; the city to which she returned was a hideout for those planning global war.

It was not the first return for Benazir; her earlier return had involved a showdown with another military ruler, flirtations with other risks. But in 2007, as in 1986, it was democracy that was at stake — the unfulfilled promise that kept being interrupted again and again. Benazir had returned, been elected, been deposed and then, like the directions on shampoo bottles in the houses of those that could afford them, been forced to rinse and repeat. This would be another shot for her, another shot for the Pakistani people; practice makes perfect and another election meant more practice.

Despite everything, Benazir returned to Pakistan, ignoring the warnings and not considering the dangers — or considering them and being undeterred. When she arrived in Karachi on the appointed date, hordes of people stood to greet her: hundreds and thousands whose relationship with yet another bout of military rule had renewed their love for the leader whose government had been sent packing not once but twice. Perhaps they had forgiven her, perhaps they did not remember, or perhaps they had simply changed their minds and decided to give the PPP agenda another chance. On October 18, 2007, Benazir Bhutto flew to Karachi from Dubai, and 150 of her closest supporters joined her.

As the plane approached Karachi that sunny October afternoon, the city lay under it, exposed and seemingly benign. What danger could lurk in such light and what menace emerge from a crowd that waited with such patience for the arrival of a woman in a country of men? The fears that people may have had melted away with the sun and the slow pace of the procession.

According to reports written of that day, the Sindh police had posted 200 extra policemen on the route of the procession. They had estimated that it would not take more than two hours for the crowd to get from Jinnah International Airport to the mausoleum of the founder of the country, Mohammad Ali Jinnah — from the point of arrival to the point of destination.

The calculations were wrong. It grew dark and the procession was still far from the site of the rally. Some said it was even darker than it needed to be, because the streetlights were not turned on. What happened after that is well known. The procession was attacked, over a hundred killed, many more injured. Benazir survived that day, but as we all know her failing luck would not take her past the election, past the new terrors that were in the home to which she had returned.

This past weekend of March 23, Pakistan welcomed another return and another promise. The crowd was smaller, rendered scant perhaps by the weight of disappointments past, by the fear of terrors that are no longer new and that sit like certainties in every crowd and blast the faces of whole buildings. The promises were the same: for better futures, for solutions and for salvations. In the months to come, there are likely to be more, some from the mouths of leaders of old and some from the mouths of leaders new.

Should they be weighed against the disappointments of the past, the fears of the future? Must the structures and strictures of dependencies on foreign aid, legacies of corrupt practices, borders of manufactured voting districts, be allowed to keep the people from hoping, from participating, from voting? Or should the weight of choices past be discarded in favour of new hopes?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, recounting the story of returns that have come before — of the bloody path to elections past — is a worthy endeavour for a Pakistan that likes to forget or perhaps recount only bits and forget pieces. Its value lies in knowing that even while the doubts remain the same and that the men who were obstacles in elections past are the hopefuls of elections present, the time for choosing is still a time for possibility. In remembering the mistakes and the discontentment and the tragedies of elections past, the coming elections can become not an exercise in forgetting and futility but a chance for real choices.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.