Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Post-assassination Pakistan

Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi
(Courtesy The Daily Times)

Opposition to Musharraf’s continued stay in office is increasing. In the event that the PPP and the PMLN take a significant portion of the vote in the election, an open confrontation between them and Musharraf cannot be ruled out

The postponement of general elections from January 8 to February 18 is no surprise. The Election Commission decided the issue with the consent of the presidency but it delayed the announcement to create the façade of consultations with the political parties. The Chief Election Commissioner did not name the parties approached for that purpose and refused to divulge their input.

The consultations, if any, with the political parties were irrelevant to the postponement decision that was taken partly on administrative considerations and partly to enable the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PMLQ) to revive its election machinery and campaign that faced the wrath of the Bhutto sympathisers. It is interesting to note that the destruction of Election Commission offices in 11 districts in Sindh was described as the main cause of postponement of the elections throughout the country. No Election Commission office was burnt down anywhere else. The NWFP government’s suggestion for postponement of elections in some constituencies in the tribal areas and Swat had nothing to do with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The Punjab government, fully conscious of the political predicament of the pro-Musharraf PMLQ, favoured the postponement, although no election office was attacked in the province. Similarly, the Balochistan government also favoured postponement to stay in line with the federal government.

The postponement decision is a typical example of bureaucratic and administrative approach to political problems. The long years of direct and indirect military rule and the expanded role of intelligence agencies have given salience to management and order in handling political affairs. The administration views political activities and elections as administrative burdens, if not nightmares. It tries to restrict political activities and avoid elections, if possible, or favour carefully regulated elections.

The administration was already perturbed by the positive popular response to the visits of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto to different parts of the country. This threatened the capacity of the administration to manage the elections to their satisfaction. The post-assassination violence added to their problems. From a purely administrative perspective, the situation was not conducive for the bureaucratic and security machinery to manage the electoral exercise.This decision was also shaped by another consideration. The assassination created a strong sympathy wave for Benazir Bhutto and the PPP. Most banners of PMLQ were removed and its candidates avoided public appearances. There were noticeable shifts of public support from the PMLQ to the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN. Though it is difficult to suggest the extent to which this sympathy wave would translate into votes for the PPP and the PMLN, it is clear that the political situation has turned hostile towards the established political order in Islamabad. Official circles expect that emotions will settle down in a couple of weeks and it will be possible for the PMLQ to pursue its election campaign and retrieve support.

The most unfortunate aspect of the current situation is the growing gulf of distrust between the PPP and the PMLN on the one hand and the government and the PMLQ on other. This drift is expected to increase as the elections approach. The PMLQ will have to campaign aggressively to effectively mobilise support. The former chief minister of Punjab and senior leader of the PMLQ, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi is now targeting Asif Ali Zardari for sharp criticism so that his party’s candidates can regain the confidence to challenge PPP candidates. The Chaudhrys have also started playing up ethnic sentiments in the Punjab to neutralise pro-PPP sentiments in the province. This is likely to reinforce polarisation between Punjab and Sindh and adversely affect inter-provincial harmony.

There are three significant developments that are expected to defuse such polarisation and mitigate efforts to play the regional-ethnic card during and after the elections. First, Nawaz Sharif visited the hospital soon after Benazir Bhutto’s death and withdrew from the election to express solidarity with the PPP and its slain leader. Second, Nawaz Sharif led his party delegation to Bhutto’s hometown for condolence and visited the graves of the elder Bhutto and Benazir. He also announced that his party would accept the PPP’s decision on participation in the elections. Subsequently, Nawaz Sharif decided to take part when the PPP decided to contest elections on the scheduled date.

Third, the new co-chairman of the PPP, Asif Ali Zardari, made an equally positive gesture by reiterating the PPP’s commitment to the federation and he condemned those who raised separatist slogans in Sindh. He also acknowledged the services of PPP diehards from Punjab who were killed along with Benazir Bhutto. These moves show a deep understanding of the gravity of the situation on the part of the PPP and PMLN leaders and their desire to contain the negative fallout from the assassination.

On the other hand, the government mishandled the situation by making an ill-advised effort to change the explanation of the assassination. It blamed Islamic militants for the incident and mentioned Benazir Bhutto’s disregard of security imperatives.President Pervez Musharraf talked of reconciliation in his address to the nation on January 2. He wants opposition political parties to cooperate with him in coping with the current internal problems. However, major opposition parties and active societal groups are not prepared to talk to Musharraf, let alone work with him. They view him as part of the problem and want him to quit.There are no chances of national reconciliation under Musharraf. As a matter of fact, opposition to his continued stay in office is increasing. In the event that the PPP and the PMLN take a significant portion of the vote in the election, an open confrontation with Musharraf cannot be ruled out.

The chances of national reconciliation can improve if Musharraf addresses some of the opposition’s concerns about elections. The opposition wants the reconstitution of the Election Commission on the basis of consultation between the government and the opposition. The opposition also wants to suspend district and tehsil nazims that are openly exploiting their official positions to help the PMLQ. Similarly, there have complaints about the partisan role of the caretaker government in Punjab in favour of the PMLQ.Musharraf refuses to accommodate the opposition on these issues. Therefore, Musharraf’s appeal implies the acceptance of his commanding role in the political system and playing politics on the terms set out unilaterally by him. The PPP and the PMLN are not expected to do this.

In case the opposition concludes after elections that the polling process was manipulated to give an advantage to the PMLQ, the political situation can deteriorate in the post-election period. Already a number of political parties, lawyers and societal groups have boycotted the election. If the polls are manipulated, contesting parties will join these forces to challenge Musharraf.

As Pakistan’s political parties and societal groups grapple with the issues of stability and internal harmony in the post-assassination period, they will either endeavour to clip the role and powers of Musharraf or remove him from office altogether. The opposition has already rejected Musharraf’s re-election secured through political manipulation, suspension of the constitution and reconstitution of the superior judiciary. Musharraf faces a difficult and uncertain political future, which could have serious ramifications for political stability in Pakistan.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

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