May 152008

The MQM is already straining at the leash to join the federal cabinet. The PMLQ, which is enjoying the spectacle from the sidelines after having been clobbered, is unlikely to remain on the fence if and when the PPP needs it to save the presidency. Sharif knows this

If I were Nawaz Sharif, I too would have looked exhausted, unbuttoned my collar and loosened the tie-knot. The image during his press conference in Lahore May 12 was a good visual for coalition woes.

The question now, and the obvious one, is: where to from here?

Speculations abound even though Yogi Berra famously said that “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”.

To begin simply, Sharif has two choices. He can either take the logic of what he has done further, which will be a political risk, or allow the PPP to woo him back, which the latter has said it will do.

Let me stick my neck out and say that, objectively speaking, Sharif should exercise the option of returning to the fold rather than taking the present course to the tipping point. Here’s why.

Sharif has been circumspect, up until now, in dealing with the issue. There was no name-calling and no accusations at the press conference. The PPP has been equally mature. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has refused to accept the resignations of the PMLN ministers; earlier, Asif Ali Zardari had said that he would request the prime minister to keep the portfolios open so their ministries could be returned to PMLN ministers.

The only ministry to get a new minister was to be finance. And that too because of the appropriations bill. Chances are that Gilani might ask Ishaq Dar, the PMLN finance minister, to continue even as other ministers do not, for now, attend to their ministries. If that happens, and if Sharif allows Dar to continue working, it would be the strongest signal that the rough the coalition has hit will not flatten it.

Even if that does not happen, as a rational political player, Sharif should be able to calculate the risks involved in opting out of the coalition. It would not do to simply stay out of the government and lend it issue-based support. That option he wanted to exercise earlier but could not because Zardari told him clearly enough that they will sink and swim together.

The other possibility of quitting the treasury altogether means some kind of linkage with the rejectionists — the All Parties Democratic Movement and the more stringent factions of the lawyers. That would mean supporting their agitational politics.

That would also mean forcing the PPP hand into making a bid for Punjab, Sharif’s stronghold. In case that happens, Punjab would actually become Sharif’s Achilles’ heel. Let it be said that while Sharif is prepared to get out of the federal cabinet on a moral stand, losing Punjab, even such a prospect, is a different ballgame altogether.

Moreover, while Sharif’s politics, up until now, has brought into convergence the morality of the issue and political expediency, as a rational political player he has to maximise his political advantage and therefore at some point the scales must begin to tip in favour of what is doable rather than what is desirable.

The MQM is already straining at the leash to join the federal cabinet. The PMLQ, which is enjoying the spectacle from the sidelines after having been clobbered, is unlikely to remain on the fence if and when the PPP needs it to save the presidency.

Sharif knows this. He also knows that he has been forced to do what he has done because of his rhetoric on the issue of restoring the judges. He may well have hit bottom and that only means bouncing back.

If he doesn’t opt out, very unlikely unless he throws everything to the wind, he will most probably let the PPP get on with the constitutional package it wants to put together. Once that has happened, the PMLN could support it on the basis of the argument that it could not have stayed out of a process that led to the restoration of judges.

It can make cautious noises about the PMLN’s inability to get the judges restored through a parliamentary resolution and an executive order but it has a good excuse: it doesn’t have the headcount to do so and it has done whatever could be done to pressure the senior coalition partner to fall in step. Since that was not to be, it had to choose between “all or nothing” and one being impossible and the other impractical, it would go for what can be salvaged.

The PPP, for its part, realises that the pact it has with the other power centres is not a straightforward affair. Also, while the judges’ issue may have generated much heat, there is much else on the plate: terrorism, power shortages, food and oil crisis, etc. So it will do everything to keep the flock together.

Simultaneously, however, it has made arrangements for the alternative. If the worse comes to the worst, it would make a bid for Punjab. The postponement of the by-elections, and the cloak and dagger manner in which that was conducted, was primarily meant to keep Shahbaz Sharif out of the political arena until matters could be decided on the judges’ issue.

As matters stand, both parties have another month to take their respective positions. Chances are the PPP will try and push the constitutional package through as quickly as it can and see how the PMLN reacts to it. If the reaction is positive, everyone will gain; if not, we will have to fasten the seatbelts for rough weather.

Ejaz Haider is Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and Consulting Editor of The Friday Times. He can be reached at This article originally appeared in The Indian Express

Source: Daily Times, 15/5/2008

 Posted by at 9:10 am

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