PAKISTAN: JOCKEYING FOR POSITION
With just a month to go before the postponed general elections to the National and Provincial Assemblies of Pakistan, which are now to beheld on February 18,2008, the election campaign is once again picking up the momentum, which it had lost after the shocking assassinationof Mrs.Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister, on December 27, 2007. Apparently rendered wiser by the shock and grief caused by herassassination, which was in part due to her habit of flouting security regulations, the political leaders have been more restrained in theircampaigning, with their public exposure restrained to the minimum unavoidable. The consequences of another assassination by the jihaditerrorists would be incalculable for the future of the country and its political stability.
2. There are essentially five players in the arena----the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) now led in the field by Mr.Asif Zardari, the widower ofBenazir, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) headed by Mr.Nawaz Sharif, another former Prime Minister, the pro-Musharraf PML (QaideAzam) led by Chaudhury Shujjat Hussain, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of Mr.Altaf Hussain, who is remote-controlling from his exilein the UK, and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI) Pakistan headed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman. There are other smaller players such as thePashtun Awami National Party (ANP), the breakaway faction of the PPP led by Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, another Pashtun leader etc.Elections will also be held in the terrorism-affected tribal belt in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where, however, thepolitical parties have no role to play. It is the tribal leaders, who determine the course and outcome of the elections. Interestingly, theleaders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, headed by Baitullah Mehsud, while stepping up their acts of terrorism in the tribal belt and outside,have not joined the other religious fundamentalist parties in boycotting the elections. They are, however, working for the defeat of MaulanaFazlur Rahman in the Dera Ismail Khan constituency of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), which has a large number of migrant labourfrom South Waziristan. They are angry with him for allegedly colluding with Musharraf for facilitating his re-election as the President.
3. Of the main players, the PPP has retained its voter base in the rural areas of Sindh and in the Seraiki areas of southern Punjab. Had theelections been held on January 8,2008, as originally scheduled, it might have benefitted from the wave of anger and sympathy following theassassination of Benazir. This wave is already showing signs of weakening and might weaken further as the election date approaches. ThePPP will definitely do well in the elections, but may not do so well as to get an absolute majority on its own. It may have to depend on othersfor forming a stable Government.
4. Even while maintaining its strident campaign against the Government for allegedly failing to protect Benazir, it has taken care not tototally burn its bridges with President Pervez Musharraf. It has kept open the possibility of working with him after the elections in aUS-blessed Troika arrangement with Musharraf continuing as the President, a leader of the PPP as the Prime Minister, and Gen AshfaqPervez Kiyani as the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). Zardari has been saying till now that he would not be in the race for the post of PrimeMinister and that the Prime Minister could be Maqdoom Amin Fahim, the Vice-Chairman of the Party, or any other candidate chosen by theParty Executive. Even if Zardari sticks to his commitment not to enter the race for the post of Prime Minister, he would be the de factopower behind the throne.
5. His statements and remarks after the assassination of Benazir indicate that he prefers continuing with the policy of Benazir of workingwith Musharraf---- with the US acting as the umpire in the relations of the PPP Prime Minister with Musharraf on the one side and Kiyani onthe other. Despite the growing unhappiness in the US administration over the failure of Musharraf to deal effectively with the remnants of AlQaeda and the Neo Taliban operating from the Pakistani territory, the US still has confidence in his ability to ensure the security ofPakistan's nuclear arsenal and prevent their falling into the hands of the jihadi terrorists. It would, therefore, like Musharraf to continue asthe President without any dilution in his powers, but working in tandem with an elected Prime Minister and not at cross-purposes with him.
6. Even in the PPP there is a realisation (not openly expressed) that the Army should continue to play the leadership role in the fight againstterrorism and that the continuance of Musharraf as the President would facilitate this objective. It is also receptive to the US perceptionthat at a time when the terrorists seem determined to destabilise Pakistan, it would be unwise and short-sighted to rock the boat forMusharraf.
7. It is, therefore, likely that while not making the position of Musharraf untenable by seeking to impeach him or re-opening the issue of hisarbitrary exercise of power during the short period when he had imposed a State of Emergency and suspended the operation of theConstitution, it would insist on guarantees to prevent such an arbitrary exercise of power by Musharraf in future. When Benazir was alive,she had already raised the question of doing away with the power of the President to dismiss the elected Prime Minister. This could be itsminimum condition for co-operation with Musharraf after the elections.
8. The PML (N) of Nawaz Sharif and the PML (QA) of Shujjat Hussain are expected to have equal chances in Central and Northern Punjab andin some pockets of the NWFP. Nawaz Sharif continues to be as erratic as ever in his political judgement. He has denied himself of anyflexibility in his political manoeuvring by taking up a strong line against Musharraf, by insisting on the re-instatement of the judges sackedby Musharraf after imposing the Emergency, by wanting to have Musharraf impeached and by continuing to display a lack of understandingfor the US concerns over the dangers of the spreading terrorism in Pakistani territory and its likely threat to international peace and security.
9.So long as his conviction by an Anti-Terrorism court of Karachi in 2000 continues, there is no question of his becoming the Prime Ministeragain. It would be in the interest of his party to build up Mr.Shahbaz Sharif, his younger brother, who has friends among senior Army officersand who is liked by the US too, as the future candidate for the post of Prime Minister should the circumstances after the elections favour thePML (N). But Nawaz seems to be reluctant to give way to his younger brother. This comes in the way of any reconciliation betweenMusharraf and the Army on the one side and the PML (N) on the other.
10. The role of the PML (QA), which is essentially an opportunistic grouping of the Punjabi loyalists of the late Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf, willremain diminished, but in the event of the PPP not doing as well as expected despite the so-called sympathy wave, it could have a greaterroom for political manoeuvrability. The MQM of Altaf Hussain retains its support base in the urban areas of Sindh and it will use its power andinfluence in the urban areas to prevent any weakening of the position of Musharraf. The JUI will hardly have any role after the elections.
11. How effectively Musharraf and the new Prime Minister are able to deal with terrorism will depend upon not only, who comes to power inIslamabad, but also on who comes to power in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP. The five years of governance of the NWFP by aMusharraf-encouraged religious coalition called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) weakened the fight against terrorism and facilitated thespread of terrorism from the FATA to the NWFP. Now that the other religious parties, which formed part of the MMA, are boycotting theelections, the possibility of pro-Al Qaeda fundamentalist elements re-capturing power in Peshawar is small. The coming into power in theNWFP of a new coalition more sincere in its commitment to fight against terrorism, should be of help to the new Government in Islamabad. (16-1-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and,presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies,Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )