Coalition blues after Musharraf —Ejaz Haider


The PPP thinks it has scored a victory. It will realise soon enough that the PMLN has used its shoulder to fire the shot that has taken out Mr Musharraf. The coming days will see conflict on the nomination of the candidate for the job Mr Musharraf has just vacated

General (Retd) Pervez Musharraf has resigned as President of Pakistan. This was on the cards. Consider.

As I wrote on August 7 (“Here’s to crossed fingers”, Daily Times) 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”.

Although there was much scepticism over Mr Zardari’s commitment, with many commentators and fringe political elements referring to it as nothing more than further political machination by him, they were wrong. Reading out a charge-sheet in a joint press conference with Mr Nawaz Sharif and announcing to impeach the president was not the same thing as subsequent dithering over a vaguely drafted document for the restoration of the judges in Bhurban.

The very act of Mr Zardari falling in step with Mr Sharif on the issue after having drawn flak for protecting Mr Musharraf against the wishes both of party cadres and the “median voter” meant two things: one, the pact that had allowed the return of Ms Benazir Bhutto and the reconfiguration of Pakistan’s politics last year had fallen apart. Two, related to this and indeed causing it was a signal by the army that it would allow the political dynamics to catch up with Mr Musharraf and not rise up in his defence.

The second aspect meant that the army, the guarantor of the pact between Mr Musharraf and the PPP, had decided to stay politically neutral. The other guarantor, the United States, could not have done much without support from internal elements despite some leverage with Islamabad — i.e., economic and other assistance woven into a system of rewards and punishments. In fact, there were attempts by the US to dissuade the current dispensation from taking a hard line against Mr Musharraf but those efforts failed in the end primarily because Mr Sharif refused to bite and compelled Mr Zardari to fall in line.

In the August 7 article I had also written:

“…on several occasions Mr Sharif had made plain that his position on these issues [getting rid of Mr Musharraf and restoration of the judges] 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’.”

Once Mr Sharif decided to stick to his demands and accepted the possible loss of the Punjab, his presumed Achilles’ heel, he left Mr Zardari with no choice but either to effect a political coup in the province or take the high tide of public and political sentiment against Mr Musharraf.

That Mr Zardari decided to take the latter course is not entirely surprising. Wresting Punjab from Mr Sharif would, at this later stage, be politically very costly. It would have further dented the PPP’s reputation, bestowed on Mr Sharif a status much bigger than he deserves, and may even have caused the PPP to splinter.

Such moves are essentially a matter of timing; it would have been less costly for the PPP if it had decided early on to stay away from the PMLN and its positions. The final opportunity that came its way was when the PMLN walked out of the cabinet. The PPP did not act then. Its reluctance to take the PMLN head-on signalled to Mr Sharif that if he sustained the pressure, the PPP will buckle under. Mr Sharif’s gamble has worked.

What next now that Mr Musharraf is no more on the scene?

The issue of the restoration of the judges still hangs fire. It is not clear how Mr Zardari will tackle the issue — will he accept the restoration of the deposed CJP or restore other judges sans the CJP? Also unclear at this stage is whether he has asked the PMLN for a quid pro quo after having supported the latter’s demand for impeaching Mr Musharraf. But as things stand, even if the PPP has made such a demand, or were to make such a one, we can be sure that Mr Sharif is in no mood to climb down. He has not only smelt blood, he has drawn blood. He will not back off.

Can the PPP do anything? No. Mr Sharif has got a political leg-up on Mr Zardari and is thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. There is a strong possibility that he will continue to drag his feet on the issue of rejoining the cabinet. In other words, while he comes out smelling like a rose from this round of political instability, Mr Zardari and with him the PPP, will also be additionally burdened with the responsibilities of running a government. And on that front, any number of issues remains to be sorted out.

Trouble is, Mr Musharraf’s departure in no way is going to resolve any of those issues — internal and external security problems; sliding economy, water and power shortages, bearish market trends, rising prices, public anger and so on.

Mr Sharif has got a taste for power without responsibility. His power base is the Punjab and here his brother Mian Shahbaz Sharif will continue his good work to further entrench the party. At the centre, Mr Sharif will continue to be the voice of the people while avoiding the thankless job of running a government.

The PPP thinks it has scored a victory. It will realise soon enough that the PMLN has used its shoulder to fire the shot that has taken out Mr Musharraf. The coming days will see conflict on the nomination of the candidate for the job Mr Musharraf has just vacated. But that would just be the tip of the iceberg. There is more in store on a range of policies, most important of them the war on terror and its implications for external and internal security.

The army for its part has tried to stay away from this fracas. But while the space for its overt intervention has diminished, it has not lost its institutional capacity or the desire to defend its interests.

We might have seen the denouement of the drama of which Mr Musharraf was the central character, but it is far from curtains as far as the next phase of this coalition is concerned. There is plenty more to come, so say tuned.

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, 19/8/2008

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