Here’s to crossed fingers —Ejaz Haider

The PPP is now committed to a course from which it can disengage only at a very high cost to its popularity and credibility as a political party; there are also uncertainties inherent in the logic of what it has accepted

The simmering political cauldron has begun hissing again and this time threatens to boil over. Consider.

Mr Asif Ali Zardari’s acceptance “in principle” that the National Assembly will move an impeachment motion against General (Retd) Pervez Musharraf if the latter does not step down voluntarily is an almost irreversible step. To that extent, within the game that was being played, it gives a leg up to the PPP’s coalition partner, the PMLN.

The PMLN had remained intransigent on the two issues of Mr Musharraf’s impeachment and the restoration of the judges. In fact, the PMLN is also on record as insisting on the invocation of Article 6 of the Constitution (High Treason) after Mr Musharraf is removed.

It is unclear so far whether the PPP would agree to that course of action if and when a motion to impeach Mr Musharraf is tabled in the National Assembly and the later proceedings, if the president refuses to fade away, go against him (see Article 47 of the 1973 Constitution, clauses 1-8 dealing with “Removal [or impeachment] of President”).

Mr Sharif had gone into last Tuesday’s meeting saying he wanted a final decision from the PPP (read: Mr Zardari) over the sticking points — Mr Musharraf’s removal and the restoration of the judges — and by extension the future of the coalition itself.

Earlier, on several occasions Mr Sharif had made plain that his position on these issues was non-negotiable and that he was prepared even to lose Punjab and sit in the opposition if the PPP did not accept these demands as obliged to do so under the Murree Declaration and decided instead to move against the PMLN government in the Punjab. However, simultaneously, Mr Sharif was always careful to iterate that he did not wish to break the coalition.

Mr Sharif’s strategy was one of compellence. He decided to drive the car at full speed towards Mr Zardari’s and left the decision to avoid the collision on Mr Zardari, what Schelling would describe as a “threat that leaves something to chance”.

By accepting that if they can get the numbers in the National Assembly and Senate, the PPP would go along with the demand to impeach Mr Musharraf, Mr Zardari seems to have crossed a line he had resisted so far from crossing, instead relying on ambiguity vis-à-vis Mr Musharraf that would have allowed the PPP to manage things on either side of the fence.

But crossing the line also means a substantive change in the current configuration which was constructed through multiple pacts. The PPP’s slain chairperson Ms Benazir Bhutto had returned to Pakistan under a pact with Mr Musharraf which was partially guaranteed by the army and partially by the United States. The pact basically strove to take Pakistan into the next five years of politics without any upheaval but with the participation of the main political parties, notably the PPP.

The arrangement thus sought to create a space-sharing formula for all the main actors. Ms Bhutto tragically was assassinated; that was a setback to the transition but the script was more or less followed — except that the PMLN, which emerged as the second largest party and went into a coalition with the PPP, refused to climb down on the twin demands of Mr Musharraf’s removal and the restoration of the judges, citing both as its main election plank.

The PPP, in the first flush of victory, signed a Declaration conceding to the PMLN demands. The question is, why did it do that? There can be many reasons. The party was in the first flush of victory and could have assessed that it was better to own up to this agenda rather than allowing the PMLN to become its sole advocate. This makes sense because as a political party, while playing the game with other actors it also needs to keep an eye on the voter and popular sentiment.

It could also have estimated that by pulling the PMLN into the coalition it would, over time, be able to dilute the Nawaz League’s intransigence. This meant buying time for passions to settle down. This is why, after initially embracing these demands, the PPP began to drag its feet on both issues.

It now seems that it might have miscalculated Mr Sharif’s cost-benefit analysis. Even after Mr Sharif pulled out of the cabinet on May 13, the PPP did nothing to upset the balance in the Punjab except delivering a mild rap on the PMLN’s knuckles in the form of bringing in Salmaan Taseer as the governor.

The PPP should have realised, which Mr Sharif knew all along, that beyond a certain point it (PPP) could not have effected a political coup in the Punjab without coming across as blatantly anti democratic forces. In any case, with Mr Sharif digging in his heels on his demands, the PPP was taking flak on two counts: sailing through the troubled waters of governance as well as inertia on doing what popular opinion demanded. And street passion, as is its wont, mixed up both.

If we accept that Mr Zardari has crossed the line and cannot retract, the question then is, what will Mr Musharraf do? Reports suggest he is planning to fight back. How? He has said he will use whatever constitutional means he has to thwart an attempt to impeach him. This basically means using article 58 2 b unless he allows the coalition to move the motion and then present himself before it to defend the charges.

Can he send the assembly packing?

Not unless the army decides to back him up. But that is a course fraught with dangers. The army is facing an insurgency and other security pressures; it is also extremely unpopular with the people, one reason why the present army chief has been at pains to take visible steps to pull the army away from the civilian sphere and act in subservience to the civilian principals.

If it were to decide to support Mr Musharraf, the army will have to accept the uncertainties inherent in that step. Mr Musharraf could of course rely on a judiciary which is not accepted by the lawyers and the PMLN. That would be another factor adding to instability.

The main political actors, even if they are ousted, cannot be made to disappear from the scene. And while they are there, they can rely on extreme public reaction to yet another “coup” by Mr Musharraf. Such a situation will also force the PPP into joining the overtly anti-Musharraf camp. The situation could be taken advantage of and given a fillip to by extremist elements that are currently under pressure from the army.

On the other hand, if the army were to ask Mr Musharraf to step down, it would have been licked as an institution. The army’s loss of the round may not address the bigger issue of civil-military imbalance but does inflict a tactical defeat on it.

The United States, regardless of its interest in sustaining Mr Musharraf, cannot guarantee his survival or control the actions of internal political actors beyond a certain point. In any case, the US cannot wield influence without the support of domestic forces, whether it be the army or some political party or a combination.

Be that as it may, one thing is certain. If the PPP does not change course the pact will come apart. And, as noted above, the PPP is now committed to a course from which it can disengage only at a very high cost to its popularity and credibility as a political party. Equally, there are uncertainties inherent in the logic of what the party has accepted. The army too faces its own difficult choices.

Adding to the situation, and this may be the sting in the tail, is the acceptance by eight deposed judges of the Sindh High Court to take oath for reinstatement. The question is, given what the law minister had been saying, whether the PMLN knew about the development. If it was, take as this development does the sheen off the lawyers’ movement, could this be a quid pro quo: Mr Zardari accepts that an impeachment motion be tabled against Mr Musharraf while Mr Sharif looks the other way as more judges decided to join the current batch of eight?

Could it also be, earlier observations about the risk of unpopularity notwithstanding, that Mr Zardari might just have played an even more ambitious hand against Mr Sharif on the issue of impeachment too?

Here’s to crossed fingers.

Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at sapper@dailytimes.com.pk

Source: Daily Times, 7/8/2008

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