Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pakistan Politics Big Game

Faces in Pakistan Politics
Political engineering is the name of the game. There is news of two parallel developments that will shape the nature of politics in the run-up to the next election and possibly after it. The first is a strategic decision by the PMLQ and PPP to join hands as coalition partners in Islamabad this month and electoral allies next year; the second is a strategic decision by the military to cobble an electoral alliance comprising Imran Khan’s PTI, the “Like-Minded” breakaway rump of the PML-Q, Gen Pervez Musharraf’s APML, JI, MQM and JUI. All this jockeying for power makes sense.

The PPP is sick to death of the constantly blackmailing tactics of the MQM and JUI. They’re in and out of the coalition every other day. With the budget two months away, President Asif Zardari can’t afford to take any chances in the numbers game. Failure would amount to a vote of no-confidence and curtains for his government. So he needs a stable partner who’s out in the cold and desperate to climb into bed with him. The PMLQ fits the bill nicely. It has as many MNAs to offer as the MQM and JUI combined. But not perfectly, because it was the “Qatil” League only three years ago after Mr Zardari accused it of murdering Benazir Bhutto. It is also a good electoral partner to have in the Punjab where it will eat into the anti-PPP vote bank targeted by Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN and the PTI-led alliance that is in the offing. In a three way fight, the PPP-PMLQ alliance with creative seat adjustments – on the basis of the new population census which will significantly change the constituency landscape – has a great chance of bumping off its rivals in many hotly contested constituencies.

The PMLQ’s leaders, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi and Chaudry Shujaat, have barely managed to hold their own in the face of raids on their uneasy MNAs by the PMLN in Punjab. Abandoned by the military after General Musharraf’s exit, they need to clutch at someone’s coattails for survival. The PPP under Mr Zardari is as pragmatic as it can get, which suits the Chaudhries and all those old and new Muslim Leaguers who can’t stomach Nawaz Sharif’s autocratic ways or fear his vindictive tendencies. Imran Khan’s anti-corruption, anti-establishment, revolutionary rhetoric is not palatable either. And since Mr Zardari has clarified that his reference to the “Qatil” League was aimed at General Musharraf and not the Chaudhries – which is why Gen Musharraf is in the dock for the murder of Benazir Bhutto and not the Chaudhries – the route is open for their alliance.

This PPP-PMLQ alliance will be based on a detailed MOU about key issues of policy and power-sharing during crunch times ahead. Among these are budgetary proposals, AF-Pak and Pak-US relations, local body elections, seat adjustments, allocation of funds for MNAs and MPAs, allotment of ministries and advisorships, etc. The inevitable disgruntlement in their respective ranks and files will have to be handled effectively.

The military is backing Imran Khan as a spoiler. He is popular with young people. His problem is a lack of organizational ability to pull the voter out. But the ISI is a past master at creating parties and cobbling alliances – PNA, IJI, MMA – with a view to ensuring that no party gets such a majority that its leaders run amuck and break loose from their masters in GHQ, as happened with Mohammad Khan Junejo in 1987-88 and Nawaz Sharif 1999. So if Imran Khan & Co can split the vote and stop the PMLN from galloping past the poll, or the PPP from getting out of hand, the military’s objectives will be well served. One way to keep the civil-military imbalance tilted in its favour is to keep the civilians divided and disorganized.

All this leaves Nawaz Sharif in the lurch. If he pre-empts these moves by trying to oust the Zardari regime by joining hands with the MQM and JUI, he risks being sidelined by a third force comprising the judges, media and military which is rooting for a quasi-constitutional technocratic regime instead of him. If he bides his time, the PPP-PMLQ budding alliance will blossom to his disadvantage when the elections roll around.

The hard budget in June will test everyone’s nerves. The PPP and PMLQ will have to shoulder the burden of public hostility. An election soon thereafter could prove to be their death-knell. So they will want to keep the government and alliance going the full hog until Feb 2014, enabling them to live to fight a better day.

By the same measure, however, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan & Co will find no better opportunity than budget time to gird their loins for a final Heave-Ho and early election.

The X factor remains the Supreme Court. It has the capacity to upset the Chaudhry’s cart by derailing the political career of Moonis Elahi. It also seems intent on knocking Mr Zardari and his government. This is ominous. If there is gridlock between the executive and judiciary, the anti-American media and anti-politician military will become the arbiters of Pakistan’s fate. In the event, Pakistan’s fledgling democracy and ailing economy will suffer an epileptic fit again.

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