Monday, December 17, 2007

Pakistan's Elections

It's All Over But the Squealing

...About the vote rigging, that is.

Update:

IRI has its numbers and the ISI apparently has their own.

And perhaps political strength and electoral success are two different things.

According to a report in Dawn, reflecting assumptions in early December, when the parliamentary elections are done and the seats divied up, the PML-Q--though excoriated as the despised creature of Musharraf's bankrupt rule-- is expected to come out on top, with Bhutto's PPP in second place and Sharif’s PML-N a distant fourth.

This is a snapshot from approximately the same period as the U.S. International Republican Institute poll cited below.

The source? Apparently leaks from Pakistan's intelligence agencies.

As reported in
Dawn :

These estimates which the PPP and the PML-N sources here believe have been drawn up by the intelligence agencies in the first week of the current month have
given the PML-Q 115 seats followed by PPP (90), MMA (45), PML-N (40), MQM (20) and ANP (12) in a house of 342.These estimates are said to have been made on the basis of the ‘strength’ of each party constituency-wise plus individual
candidate’s own ‘ability’ to pull voters and the political affiliation of the
nazims in the constituency.

The sources who did not wish to be identified alleged that the official plan was to rig the polls in such a way as to deny a clear majority to any of the contesting parties so as to place President Pervez Musharraf in a position of cobbling together a coalition of his choice which, according to the American script, is a coalition of the PML-Q and the PPP.

...

They, however, did not rule out the possibility of the original official estimates undergoing further changes in the remaining three weeks to the polls which could swing in favour of the PPP and the PML-N

It’s an interesting situation where the intelligence agency doesn’t just manage expectations; it announces them.

We’ll find out in early January how accurate the math of the intelligence agencies is.
CH


Now back to the original post.

The latest International Republican Institute polling is out and the intended (and unintended) message is Watch Out, Benazir!

The Western press has given a lot of play to the finding that two-thirds of the respondents think that the January parliamentary poll will be rigged by Musharraf.

But here’s what everybody should be thinking about:

In a party vote election test, PPP topped the field, garnering 30 percent in the national sample. PML-N was second with 25 percent and PML-Q came in third with 23 percent.

In other words, in the end-November snapshot, even if the elections were fair, Bhutto’s PPP would only garner 30% of the vote.

That makes one appreciate how canny a move it was for Musharraf—whose support has dwindled to a Bush-like base of the low twenties, both personally and for his PML-Q creation—to permit Nawaz Sharifk, probably with Saudi direction and support, to return from Saudi Arabia and energize the PML-N.

Sharif’s numbers in September—a soaring upward trend that I reported on—were apparently triggered by the favorable publicity surrounding his previous attempt to return and the subsequent expulsion, and have deflated somewhat since then.

But:

In head-to-head match-ups, Bhutto topped the list with Sharif coming in second and Musharraf in third. However, over the course of the poll being taken, Bhutto's numbers were trending down, indicating that they had been higher. Sharif, on the other hand, trended upwards over the course of the fieldwork. IRI's last poll (August 29-September 13, 2007) was taken in the days leading-up to his first return and subsequent deportation, and Nawaz's numbers were very high.

However, after he was deported, his numbers deflated, as is reflected in this most recent poll. IRI's fieldwork for this poll was largely completed before Sharif's most recent return and it does not capture the extent to which his popularity increased as a result. However, his numbers did tick up slightly in the portion of the fieldwork conducted after his return, indicating that he is now trending upwards.[emph. added]

So, the real concern for Benazir Bhutto is not necessarily that the Musharraf’s harpies will dash the fruits of democracy from Pakistan’s lips.

The real concern is that Bhutto’s limited popularity, coupled with the challenge from Sharif, and with an added dollop of vote rigging that might not even be necessary, will keep her PPP from claiming the top spot in the election...and prevent her from feasting on the power she has been thirsting for since the 1990s.

Parliamentary system, doncha know.

Top party in parliament gets a chance to form a government and anoint its chief as Prime Minister.

There’s no chance that the PPP will get close to an absolute majority.

Zero chance even with the fairest elections on this planet.

What Bhutto really needs is to come out of the election with the most MPs in order to commence the horsetrading needed to put her in the Prime Minister slot.

That means she needs to beat Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N—not Pervez Musharraf and his dead-ender PML-Q. So the number that matters isn’t Musharraf’s fading 23%; it’s Sharif’s growing 25% vs. Bhutto’s sagging 30%.

If by fair means or foul, Bhutto falters at the finish, she has promised to howl about vote rigging and bring her supporters in the streets and the banner of a color-coded democracy revolution.
But it won’t look that great if what she’s really howling about how Nawaz Sharif edged her party out...after she sold out the popular democracy movement by betraying its plan for an election boycott.

As I posted previously, with Sharif and a genuine democracy movement in the picture, Bhutto invoking people power might come off less as a principled protest and more like a selfish and self-serving power play...perhaps not the best move for Ms. 30%...and in fact one that might play into the hands of Musharraf and his cronies.

So, Bhutto had better play her hand carefully, during and after the elections, and inside the smoke-filled room, to gain the coveted PM post.

Dealing with the religious parties is off the table.

So Bhutto will have to deal either with Sharif’s PML-N...or Musharraf’s PML-Q.

That is what is presumably behind Bhutto’s shocking statement that she was willing to deal with Musharraf...and, in the most obvious quid pro quo imaginable, ignore the dismissal of the anti-Musharraf supreme court justices.

Musharraf reciprocated, but kept a key political lever close at hand:

Under the constitution passed after Musharraf seized power in 1999, Bhutto is barred from serving as prime minister as she has held the office twice. But he said: “If she wins enough votes, we may reconsider the third-term condition.”

In any event, Musharraf seems to be in pretty good shape, according to Dawn’s political correspondent:

In their election campaign, the PPP leaders are not saying anything against President Musharraf, while the PML-N, though critical of the general who overthrew the Nawaz Sharif government in October 1999, is not seeking his ouster any more....The PPP leadership did target Gen Musharraf in the beginning, but now it has changed the focus.

A time came when Ms Bhutto declared that her party would not accept Gen Musharraf even without uniform, and demanded the pre-Nov 3 judiciary should decide the issue of the general’s eligibility for the second term as president.

However, the PPP chairperson changed her stance on both the issues....Though Mr Sharif has announced that he will not like to work as prime minister with President Musharraf, he is not talking of his ouster, an objective he has been working for years. This has been noticed even by Mr Sharif’s colleagues.

A perspicacious op-ed pointed out:

Musharraf’s best interest thus lies not in sponsoring rigging, or even conniving at it, but in ensuring that it does not take place at all. Post-election manoeuvres for power in a hung parliament should enable him to seek a compromise solution to the judicial crisis which pacifies the legal community, vindicates the honour of the judges and, equally important, reasserts the principle of their accountability.

There is concern that Musharraf will pull a boneheaded play and rig the elections in a heavy-handed manner in favor of the profoundly unpopular pro-government PML-Q, provoking street demonstrations and imposition of martial law.

But Musharraf’s involvement in the intensive political maneuvering involving Bhutto and Sharif’s return, his efforts to legitimize the elections by shedding his uniform and lifting the state of emergency, and the simple fact that two of his sworn enemies are inside the country leading energized political factions would seem to militate against such a blunder.

And by letting Nawaz Sharif return, Musharraf seems to have consciously purchased himself some insurance against a color-coded revolution pushed unilaterally by Bhutto.

If anybody’s acting like an over-the-top dingbat, it’s Benazir Bhutto, courtesy of the Western media:

Any attempt to rig next month's parliamentary elections could lead to anarchy and help Islamic militancy spread further, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said on Monday.

"If the militancy spreads and if, God forbid, the country disintegrates, it would become another Afghanistan where people are living like refugees in camps," Bhutto told a crowd of about 12,000 supporters during a campaign stop in Hyderabad.

Her doomsday scenario seems unlikely...

Anyway, the current prognosis would be Bhutto as Prime Minister, Musharraf as President, the judicial crisis papered over by mutual consent...and Sharif’s party acting as a check on Bhutto while promoting the conservative, cautiously religious, and rather anti-American policies that the country seems to want.

Sharif’s party is participating in the parliamentary elections, though Sharif personally is barred from seeking a seat. Sharif is touring the country on behalf of his party’s slate, breathing fire at Musharraf and insisting that he (unlike Bhutto) will not entertain any alliance with the strongman who removed him from power and exiled him.

In Pakistani politics, the general rule is never say never and, in particular, never believe a politician who swears he will never deal with his sworn enemy.

However, my personal opinion is that Sharif may be happy to play the role of leader of the principled opposition, refusing to join a coalition with the PPP, and thereby forcing Bhutto into a suicidal embrace with Musharraf—the most unpopular politician in the country—and his MPL-Q in order to gain power as prime minister.

Certainly, any politician that straps him or herself to the political anvil that is Pervez Musharraf and the status quo is in for a bumpy ride.

There is one graph in the IRI poll on the concerns motivating voters that I think deserves some play:

Percentage of Pakistani electorate that will vote on basis of inflation concerns: 53%.

Add the poverty and unemployment numbers brings the lunchpail figure to 75%.

Terrorism: 6%.

That’s right. 6%.

In a country that is represented in the Western media as teetering on the brink of collapse fueled by militant extremist Islamicism, only 6% of the electorate feels that terrorism is important enough to determine its vote. 75% are worried about economic issues.

Sharif’s statements on pro-Taleban, pro-al Qaeda, and militantly Islamic strains in Pakistan’s society are apparently more in tune with the popular mood than Bhutto’s America friendly “we will fight them on the beaches” anti-terrorist bravado.

In recent days, Sharif has criticized the assault on the Lal Masjid mosque, condemned aggressive military tactics in the border areas, dissed U.S. influence over Pakistan’s security policy, and called for the release of Pakistan’s favorite nuclear proliferator and national hero A.Q. Khan from house arrest.

Here’s a flavor of what’s going on in the hustings:

Comparing his regime with the present one, Nawaz said that Pervez Musharraf obtained dictation from the US, whereas he received five phone calls from the US administration but did not bow to the foreign will. India made five nuclear explosions, in response, Pakistan made six atomic explosions, he told the gathering.

Got that? India 5, Pakistan 6. Pakistan wins!

How about some more numbers:

During [Sharif’s] regime, the flour was available at the rate of seven rupees per kilogram but today this most inevitable commodity was not available even for a triple sum, Nawaz said referring to recent flour shortage. "The price of bread during our government was one rupee only but today its price is above four rupees," he said.

From a report in the Pakistan News:

He said the great benefactor of Pakistan Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was lying on the death bed because of victimization by the present rulers. In Karachi, the government conspired with the MQM to slaughter the people. In the Lal Masjid operation, the limbs of innocent children, less than five years of age, were scattered by use of bombs. In Swat, people were facing bullets and their abodes were being destroyed with bombardment and rocketing.

In a perhaps unintentionally revealing piece of Pinglish, the Pakistan Times reported:

PML-N also calls for making to deal with the menace of terrorism including involvement of the people of respective tribal areas in the politics process.

Pandering? Fer sure.

But here’s what the IRI polling said:

Voters also expressed concern regarding rising Islamic fundamentalism; 66 percent agreed that religious extremism was a serious problem in Pakistan. Further, 63 percent said that the Taliban and Al Qaida operating in the country was also a serious concern. However, only 40 percent of Pakistanis supported the Army operations in NWFP and Tribal Areas and just 15 percent felt that Pakistan should cooperate with the United States in its War on Terror. [emph. added]

Hmmm. 15%. That means even if the PPP—party of our pro-American savior, Benazir Bhutto—monopolized support for the war on terror, only half of its 30% share of the electorate supports the GWOT that Benazir has pledged to fight on our behalf.

Read what this columnist for the determinedly moderate, democratic, and secular periodical Dawn had to say:

The dangers facing Pakistan are real. We have to guard against the spread of religious militancy because its spread negates the idea of Pakistan as presented by the country’s founding fathers. But we also have to realise that the rise of religious militancy is a response to the failure of the state to protect its democratic ethos. The Taliban have their own war to fight in Afghanistan and whether that war is a just war or not is for the people of Afghanistan to decide. We should have no truck with the Taliban. At the same time we should not be pushed into fighting America’s war against our own people in the tribal areas.

True, the Americans are paying us to fight this war. But hasn’t the time come for us to decide whether American largesse is worth more than the wounds that we ourselves are inflicting on Pakistani nationhood? ... We will not step out of the shadows of the Musharraf era unless we rethink our commitment to America’s war in Afghanistan.

Decoupling from the War on Terror is no longer just an issue of Pakistani nationalism or local Islamicism.

It’s also a display of disgust with military rule...and an expression of growing, activist democratic sentiment in Pakistan’s secular, educated middle class.

That’s probably why the United States finds it much easier to embrace Benazir Bhutto than Pakistan’s genuine democracy movement driven by judges, lawyers, and journalists outside of the political structure.

And that’s probably why, even if the Musharraf—Bhutto deal goes through, America is not going to get what it wants out of Pakistan.