February 15, 2008

Filed under: ELECTIONS - 2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 3:35 am




FEBRUARY 15, 2008

Collaboration and resistance



Islamabad diary

Friday, February 15, 2008
Ayaz Amir

The period which began with the coup of October ’99 is coming to the end of its natural cycle. It has already been transformed to some extent and the great helmsman whose exploits the nation has endured these past eight and a half years is no longer at the zenith of his power. But this power is set to decline some more when these elections, now just two days away, are over and the results are in. The silent majority is seething with anger and we could be in for some major upsets.

These elections aren’t turning out the way the helmsman’s allies had figured. Banking on government resources, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, Shujaat Hussain and once-upon-a-time prime ministerial hopeful Pervaiz Elahi (his ambitions dashed by the realization that the winds of public opinion are blowing in a different direction) had thought they had the outcome in their pocket, a sense of optimism belied by circumstances.

They had no idea there would be such a huge ‘anger’ vote against the policies–domestic and foreign–of the Musharraf order. And of course they had no way of knowing how Benazir Bhutto’s assassination would generate a sympathy wave for the PPP and further augment the anger vote against all the symbols of a largely discredited administration.

The Q League was heading into these elections on the assumption that an all-powerful, still-clad-in-uniform president would look after their interests and see to it that it did well at the polls. These assumptions have come unstuck largely because the emperor is now without his military clothes. As initial signals from the new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, suggest, the army, concerned about its tattered image, is in no mood to pull anyone’s political chestnuts out of the fire, which leaves the pilots on deck quite alone.

Sure, the caretaker governments are extensions of the Q League. The district nazims, still armed with a lot of nuisance value, are out helping their kith and kin. But the public mood is against anything identified with the last eight years, which leaves the Q League in a very vulnerable position. Anyone still thinking it will do well at the polls is living in an isolated world.

But whatever anyone’s assessment of the likely election results, the aftermath of the elections remains clouded with uncertainty because given the weakness of our constitutional structures, and given also the ambitions of those at the helm, we can’t be too sure how all the pieces will fall in place.

In a democracy whoever wins a majority forms the government. In our semi-authoritarian setup things are not that simple. Electoral verdicts are not always accepted and they are open to abuse and manipulation. Or they are disregarded, as in 1970 when the Awami League had swept the polls in East Pakistan but it was not allowed to come into power. Even though shorn of some of his authority, the president is still powerful enough to pull some strings and play off one rival against another.

The rivals who count are Asif Zardari (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif (PML-N). Can they forge a common understanding, thereby isolating Musharraf? Or will they provide another opening for those for whom all openings have closed?

Nawaz Sharif is all for a common understanding because he is very clear about who his target is: Musharraf, the man who ousted him from power. But what about Zardari’s priorities? Is he all out for power, in which case he may even contemplate cutting a deal with Musharraf, or is his priority democracy, meaning thereby maintaining his distance from Musharraf? Zardari thus holds the key to the puzzle, not Sharif. History’s sardonic eye is on him. Will he play for small gains or will he have his gaze on the long shot? Hard to tell.

The agreement the Americans had laboured so hard to broker between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf envisaged both coming together in a broad, ‘liberal’ coalition that, having greater political legitimacy, would be better able to fight the ‘war on terror’. Is that agreement still in place, and is Zardari still faithful to it, or has it been overtaken by events? Again, we don’t know for sure.

What we can be sure about is that Zardari hobnobbing with Musharraf after the elections will really be the cake, proving perhaps once for all the definitive bankruptcy of the Pakistani political class. Zardari would like us to believe that he has come of age as a politician. We shall have to wait and see because although he has been very sensible about so many things after his wife’s assassination his real test will come after the elections.

The holy fathers of the MMA threw Musharraf a political lifeline in 2003 when they helped pass the 17th Amendment which gave him constitutional legitimacy. But Musharraf was at the height of his power then and cobbling a deal with him then made some kind of political sense. But with his star on the wane, dealing with him now is akin to a form of political suicide.

This order is already yesterday’s child, running out of words and ideas, with nothing to offer Pakistan anymore, that is, if it had anything to offer in the first place. These elections, however dodgy some of their aspects, provides the country an opportunity to move on. This order won’t disappear all of a sudden because Musharraf as president remains very much in place. But provided current predictions about the elections hold, and the Q League disappears into the mists of history like its predecessor the Convention League did when the Ayubian era came to an end in March 1969, the opportunity will arise of making the representatives of this order irrelevant, provided of course the two main parties don’t end up making lemons of themselves.

We seem stuck in a rut. Authoritarianism punctuated by spells of civilian authority followed again by some authoritarian figure riding into the political arena has been the nation’s destiny since its birth. Far from anything being solved the mess keeps getting bigger and more complicated, self-proclaimed saviours turning out to be the biggest disasters of all. In sixty years we have simply failed, collectively, to build any enduring political institutions.

Most pundits are writing these elections off as an exercise in irrelevance. But what other avenue leading to some kind of change do we have? Ours is a weak and feckless political class and our political environment is not conducive to the spread of radical ideas. The only choice on offer is a ‘soft’ alternative.

Meanwhile we can also aim at some things. Our political mileu would be the better for developing some sturdier political principles than those we have lived by all these years. Our politicians are too used to standing in line and kowtowing to authority, no matter what the nature of that authority. This has probably something to do with our history. Punjab is the leading element in our national life and the Punjab, except for the brief intermission of the kingdom founded by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was never called upon to play a leadership role. Now that history has thrust this task upon it, the Punjabi political class is just not up to it.

So from where do we get the administrators and political managers that Pakistan needs? There are no ready answers to this question.

Our great poets, some of them in words never to be forgotten, have raged against darkness and injustice. Where the Pakistani political class has produced collaborators, it has also produced dissidents. Our lawyers and, for the first time in our history, judges have raised the banner of revolt against unconstitutional authority. Their struggle, which has not been without its glorious moments, continues. If only our political leadership could rise to the level of our poets.

FEBRUARY 15, 2008

A no-win situation


Reality check

Shafqat Mahmood

This election has the potential to be remembered as a critical turning point in the history of the country, but not for the obvious reason of reflecting popular will. This aspect has been undermined by denying the contesting parties a level playing field. It could however determine Mr Musharraf’s future and in a broader sense, become a catalyst for real democratic change.

Let us consider how. There are only a few broad results possible given that there are only three major players in the field. The first but unlikely scenario is that Musharraf’s favourite, the Q league wins a majority of seats, over a hundred, with the PPP and PML-N restricted to between fifty and sixty. This would put it in a position to easily form a government with the help of MQM, JUI Fazal and assorted others including independents.

On the face of it, this seems like a happy scenario for Mr Musharraf because with his allies in power, his position will become secure. However, the problem for him is that this result will be widely seen as rigged. This will bring all the opposition parties on a joint platform, not just the PPP and PML-N but also — after making a point of telling everyone how wrong they were — the parties in the APDM. They will not accept the result and will launch a movement against it.

The politicians will be joined in this struggle by the lawyers and the civil society activists and perhaps by the journalists, who have enough reason to dislike the current dispensation. Can this have the potential of becoming a true movement given that the earlier showings were not exactly million man marches? It is difficult to make an accurate prediction, but with some mobilization already having taken place during the election, it could become more potent than before.

The regime will of course respond with large-scale detentions and arrests. The protesters will also be treated harshly and it is possible that the movement may be temporarily suppressed but it will not go away. The turbulence will continue necessitating actions that are even more repressive. This will deteriorate the situation further until a point is reached where Mr Musharraf will be left with no option but to resign.

A very important element missing in Mr Musharraf’s armoury this time around is the army. While I am not suggesting that it has turned against him, General Kayani has initiated enough steps to distance the army from politics and by extension from Musharraf. If the movement against Mr Musharraf gathers momentum, it is unlikely that the army would come to his rescue. He is now on his own and his domestic support hinges on the Q league and perhaps the MQM. These are weak instruments of power compared to his army command. Faced with a popular onslaught, he will have no option but to go.

The second scenario is that the PPP wins big with the PML-N making a decent showing and the Q league lagging far behind. If this happens, Mr Zardari and the party would be faced with a critical decision, to go with Mr Musharraf or create a coalition against him. To me this is a no brainer. The party is convinced that Musharraf’s caretaker government is doing everything to rig the election against it. The rank and file also hold Musharraf negligent if not complicit in the murder of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. I just cannot see the PPP teaming up with him.

The more likely scenario is that the PPP will team up with PML-N and every other major and minor party sans the Q league. If this happens, Mr Musharraf might as well resign but he will make one last desperate effort to divide the PPP. Just as the patriots were created last time, he will try to create a splinter group that will not accept Mr Zardari’s leadership and effectively try to scuttle an anti Musharraf alliance.

This attempt is unlikely to succeed. The situation in 2002 was different. Musharraf was on the up and he was also the army commander. Now he is neither. It will be very foolish of any of the PPP members to go with him. Why should anyone try to rescue a person already kept alive by artificial means. If the fault line is Asif Zardari becoming the Prime Minister, he has now categorically denied that he wants to be one. I asked him this point blank and he said that he was not a candidate for the office of Prime Minister.

The third scenario is a truly hung parliament in which all the three major parties get somewhere between sixty and seventy seats. This will open up a Pandora’s Box because firstly, the election will again be challenged as rigged by the PPP and PML-N but more importantly, much wheeling and dealing will commence. If the Q is at seventy it needs another sixty-five to form a government. I cannot see this happening. The more likely scenario will still be that the PPP and PML-N will jointly form a government albeit with a small majority. They will have to narrow down their divergent positions on the restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary but if this is done, there will be no other problem with a PPP-PML-N collaboration.

How does an anti Musharraf government automatically translate into his departure? After all, to impeach him a three fourths majority is required? The answer is that if an anti Musharraf government is formed, the police, Rangers and all other paramilitary forces come under the government and not the presidency. The same is true for the ISI, the Intelligence Bureau and of particular relevance to the media, PEMRA. With the army distancing itself from the president, he will have nothing to counter an opposition government. Imagine hundreds of thousands of people converging on the presidency and no one stopping them; how long can Musharraf last?

Some people argue that the Americans are still with the retired general and this will be a decisive form of support for him. In the first place, except for the Bush people, he has lost support in the American congress and the media. They will lean on the administration to withdraw its support if the chips are down for Musharraf. Secondly, while the US has influence in Pakistan, it cannot decisively prop up a leader who has completely lost support within the country. This factor in my opinion is overrated.

Crystal ball gazing in our environment is a hazardous proposition but whichever way one looks at it, the wheels of fortune have now turned against General (r) Musharraf. The only question is the time frame for his departure. Post election repressive measures, if successful, can buy him some time but it will not change the eventual outcome. For the sake of the country, time has come for him to make a graceful exit after the election.


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