May 092008

Safe assessment: Malik started the process in conjunction with and at the behest of someone high in the PPP. It is quite another thing that the PPP media personnel were not in the loop – or were simply giving everyone a red-herring

The postponement mess caught everyone by surprise and stumped many analysts – not because it was a smart move but because it was, and has come to show itself to be, stupidity at its most stupid.

Let’s recap. The Election Commission of Pakistan suddenly announced that the by-elections had been postponed until August 18 (the new date is June 26). Predictably, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz lambasted the decision and blamed the Presidency for conspiring against democratic forces.

The Pakistan People’s Party’s media cell put out a press release and said its co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari was caught by total surprise and planned to inquire of the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, about the rationale behind this move.

The Presidency also expressed its surprise.

The media got into the act and followed the story to the ECP. The ECP secretary, Kanwar Dilshad, said the Commission had taken a decision after the NWFP government requested it to do so citing law and order problems in parts of the province.

The NWFP government said the federal government had asked it to present law and order as the reason for the postponement of by-elections. The spoor was finally traced back to Rehman Malik, prime minister’s advisor on internal security.

While the media was following the story, the PMLN was doing its own investigations. Siddiqul Farooq told the media the conspiracy was hatched by Malik in collaboration with Tariq Aziz and Attorney-General Malik Qayyum. Be that as it may, one thing is clear: it was Malik who started the whole thing. That having been established, the question is: did he go out on a limb or was he following orders?

If it’s the former, then Malik should get the award for being this year’s moron. He isn’t. What he lacks in high intelligence he more than makes up for in low cunning. If the PMLN is correct in making its accusation then there’s more to it than meets the eye. Malik obviously could not have linked up with Aziz and Qayyum to do this without a nod from somewhere else. So who is behind this?

Let’s take a pause and look at some other developments.

Differences between the two coalition partners on the judges’ issue persist despite several rounds of talks. The committee constituted to work out a formula has already lost one of its members, Fakhruddin G Ebrahim. Ebrahim resigned saying that he does not agree with the terms of reference of the committee and therefore cannot be a part of it.

By this he meant that he did not want to become a party “pursuing a favour for the judges that have taken oath under the November 3 PCO, which is also in violation of the Supreme Court order of November 3, 2007”.

Given that he was requested by Nawaz Sharif to be on the committee, what does this mean? Did Sharif not know what the TORs were/are or did he think Ebrahim would nonetheless hang in there?

Aitzaz Ahsan, who is also on the committee, seems to be torn again between the maximalism of the movement he has spearheaded and the pragmatism of the party from whose ticket he plans to contest the by-election in NA-55. The only reported statement we have so far from him after Ebrahim’s resignation is that his participation in the committee’s proceedings is “conditional”.

Sharif has already announced May 12 as the date for a parliamentary resolution. The PPP law minister, Farooq Naek, has categorically denied that May 12 presents any deadline, later spinning a complex web around the whole thing.

In an interview with The Friday Times (May 9-15), Farhatullah Babar conceded that Sharif’s May 12 deadline was not strictly a unilateral decision but went on to say: “There are two things: the principle and the mechanism of reinstating judges. As for the principle, it has been agreed that while all deposed judges will be reinstated, none of the sitting judges will be disturbed. As for the mechanism, it will have to be considered by the experts’ committee.”

The PMLN, says Zafar Iqbal Jhagra, is trying its best to keep the coalition intact. “We have our reservations about the post-November 3 judges. However, in the larger interest of the system and the country, we are willing to go to that extent. It is very difficult to steer the coalition and it will always need compromises,” Jhagra told TFT.

All of this adds up to differences that are not narrowing but increasing. Sharif’s two primary political aims are to use the morality of the issue to maximise his political advantage, and by remaining within the coalition, retain control of the Punjab, his support-base.

It should be evident that if differences persist and increase, these two objectives will become incompatible. Pulling out of the coalition at the centre would also mean a reconfiguration of political alignments all round, including in the Punjab. In other words, Sharif may end up losing Punjab.

So he has to make a decision: what is more important – continuing to press the PPP to fast-track the judges’ issue and restore all of them or retain Punjab?

At the same time, the country is moving towards the budget. The federal finance minister, Ishaq Dar, is from the PMLN. If the coalition survives until Dar has presented the budget – and the budget won’t be a happy document – it will become extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Sharif to pull out. Whatever decision he has to take must therefore come before, not after the budget.

His brother Shahbaz Sharif is to be the chief minister of Punjab. The younger Sharif needs to contest the by-elections to move into that position. What would the PPP do if it were thinking of alternatives in view of the uncertainty surrounding Sharif’s choices? At the minimum get the by-elections postponed until after the budget. Even now, as the EC announced June 26 as the new date for the by-election, that objective is largely met because the budget, at the latest must be presented by June 30, if not earlier.

Safe assessment: Malik started the process in conjunction with and at the behest of someone high in the PPP. The PPP media managers were either not in the loop or were simply giving everyone a red-herring.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that President Pervez Musharraf has decided to cut the Chaudhrys loose. The rumour making the rounds a few days ago about a change in the top leadership of PMLQ – denied vehemently by the Chaudhrys – seems more than just a straw in the wind. Especially, since there are reports that the one condition put forth by the PPP for any possible linkage with the Q-League is to have that party purged of the Chaudhrys.

The Chaudhrys, for their part, may be trying to survive by the skin of their teeth. One story tucked away in newspapers Wednesday said some members of the Q-League want to sever ties with the Presidency because that association has cost the party dearly. Oh dear!

What does all of this add up to? Take your pick and brace yourself for a hot political summer!

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

Courtesy: Daily Times, 8/5/2008

 Posted by at 5:48 am

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