The political outlook at the beginning of the year does not appear to be reassuring for democracy in Pakistan. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led federal government, including the presidency, find themselves in a siege environment with pressures coming from the superior judiciary, the military and the political opposition, especially the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). One cannot go to the extent of suggesting that there is a carefully planned conspiracy to pull down the government. However, the political fallout of the developments in 2009 has raised doubts if the post-election 2008 system can stay intact for another year.
The political future of President Asif Ali Zardari is not the only thing in jeopardy. There are more serious issues involved here. Given the fact that Pakistan faces a grave terrorist threat and its economy is heavily dependent on external support, increased political wrangling and a ‘now-or-never’ struggle between the government and opposition can collapse the whole edifice of civilian political order. All political players will lose in the incident of the unravelling of the state and societal order.
The pressures on the current political arrangements are coming from four major sources, in addition to the threats of religious extremism and terrorism. These sources are the military, the judiciary, the opposition political forces and ineptitude of the government.
Traditionally, the military and its allied intelligence agencies have had a profound impact on politics and these continue to be important players even today. However, as the military has adopted a low profile and a subtle approach to power management, the superior judiciary has stretched the domain of judicial activism to build pressure on the civilian political elite, especially those in power. What has increased political bickering is the effort by different political parties to get political mileage against the PPP out of the Supreme Court rulings.
The confrontation between the PPP and the PML-N is going to intensify in early 2010 with a focus on the political future of President Asif Ali Zardari. The statements by Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari on December 31, 2009 clearly show that the battle lines are being sharply drawn. Nawaz Sharif targeted Zardari when he asked the beneficiaries of the NRO to resign and face the courts and argued that “the money deposited in Swiss banks was the property of the people of Pakistan” and that “it must be brought back to national exchequer.” This statement means that Nawaz Sharif has adopted the perspective of the hard-line elements in the party that have long argued for taking on the PPP in unambiguous terms.
Zardari’s address on December 27 carried a clear message that he will fight back against his adversaries. On December 31, he was more categorical in responding to PML-N’s growing hostility towards him. He said that he possessed some “political weapons which he would use when he felt necessary.” He did not explain the nature of his political weapons.
It is noteworthy that parliament does not figure in different scenarios that the opposition is constructing for Zardari’s exit. No opposition leader talks of impeachment of Zardari on the basis the corruption charges because the opposition knows that unsubstantiated charges do not provide a credible basis for impeachment. Further, they do not have enough votes in the two houses of parliament to adopt this method.
The focus of the PML-N is on the developments outside parliament. Three possible scenarios can be constructed. First, the Supreme Court strikes down the presidential immunity from criminal trial and then Zardari is put on trial and convicted. The most dubious assumption is that the Supreme Court will strike down a clearly written article of the constitution and disregard the internationally established political norm of certain immunities to the head of state.
The second scenario hopes that the military top brass will apply enough pressure from the sidelines for Zardari’s resignation and, thus, clear the political deck for the opposition. This scenario is based on the assumption that the military top brass will facilitate the opposition agenda.
Third scenario perceives the PML-N spearheading a nationwide agitation against the backdrop of the alienated judiciary and the military. This agitation will paralyse the government, forcing it to accept the demand for the removal of the president. The dubious assumption in this scenario is that the PML-N can launch a nationwide agitation at a time when its main support is concentrated in Punjab and its political standing is weak in other provinces. Perhaps some religious parties may be willing to help the PML-N but these political parties, too, have major standing in Punjab.
The PPP is not expected to give a walkover to the PML-N, especially when it has strong presence in Sindh and Punjab and has a reasonable presence in the NWFP and Balochistan. There are strong doubts that the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) will join hands with the PML-N to oust Zardari.
Another set of assumptions relate to the continuation of the PPP government minus Zardari. The underlying idea is that Yousaf Raza Gilani will play ‘Farooq Leghari’ and join hands with the opposition and the military establishment to knock out Zardari.
The available evidence suggests that the minus-one formula is not going to work. The PPP is not expected to stay in office if Zardari is ousted. It will not be an easy job to create an alternate political coalition at the federal level around the PML-N.
If the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence/Military Intelligence (ISI/MI) help to contrive a coalition for the PML-N, how long the PML-N led government will play subservient to these king-makers? Will it be in a position to change Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policy and pull out of all security and financial arrangements with the United States to satisfy its rightist and Islamist support base? If it does not do that, how far its policy will be different from the current PPP government?
The revised version of the Bangladesh model whereby the PPP and the PML-N are excluded and a government of technocrats, established with the blessings of the military and the judiciary, is going to run into political and constitutional obstacles. Any deviation from the constitution and established democratic norms, including the election of February 2008, will unravel the political institutions and processes. This will compromise Pakistan’s effort to cope with religious zealots and other extremists who are challenging the domain of the state. As the political forces get bogged down in unnecessary power struggle, these anti-state forces will have greater freedom of action, thereby causing the fragmentation of the state system.
The major political parties should show restraint in pursuing their partisan agendas. The PML-N and the PPP should work out a working relationship within the existing political arrangements. Any attempt to turn them upside down by any means and for any reason will be self-destructive for the civilian political forces. It may be easy to dislodge the present arrangements, but no credible political alternative is going to be available quickly.
The PPP should go ahead with the consensus constitutional amendments at the earliest. President Zardari needs to step back from active role in policy making and management and the federal government should devote more attention to improving governance. However, both the government and the opposition will have to review their present postures simultaneously, otherwise democracy can run aground in 2010.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Article reproduced by permission of DT