Friday, January 18, 2008

Endgame for Pakistan?

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Pervez Musharraf’s survival may have been greatly exaggerated.

The same goes for the opposition alliance of Bhutto's PPP and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N.

Musharraf’s government reached out to Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N, hoping to pre-empt the electoral challenge of the PPP with a government of national unity.

Now it looks like Sharif, sensing an opportunity (and weakness), is going for the throat.

But the first victim has been the united front between the PPP and the PML-N, the result that the government was probably hoping for.

Sharif, as in the past, is demanding Musharraf’s resignation.

Now he’s demanding Musharraf’s resignation as a precondition for participating in the formation of the national unity government, and the constitution of a new electoral commission to diminish the threat of massive poll rigging by the government.

From Dawn:

“Musharraf must resign and the Senate chairman should form a consensus government after consulting all the political parties. The new set-up should reconstitute the Election Commission to be headed by Justice Rana Bhagwandas. This is the solution to 95 per cent of the ailments the country is suffering from,” he said.

Sharif would appear to have boxed himself into a corner with his demand that Musharraf go as a precondition for a government of national unity.

Well, maybe not.

Sharif’s display of principled intransigence might be the prelude to some serious and less than edifying wriggling, as well as the collapse of the rickety united front negotiated between Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and even more chaos, division, and acrimony than usual in Pakistan's politics.

Pakistan’s media is abuzz with rumors that Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz—the more conciliatory member of the political partnership-- is involved in negotiations with Musharraf through a mutually trusted and respected intermediary, Brigadier General (ret) Niaz to set up a unity government, including Musharraf.

And that would involve Nawaz Sharif stepping back from his very public and vehement insistence that Musharraf step down.

Apparently the Saudis are, as always, lending a hand:

Sources said the Musharraf camp was simultaneously working on two strategies to deal with Nawaz to bring him in line. First, Nawaz was being put under pressure from the old Arab friends, who had rescued him when he was jailed in the Attock Fort. After return of Nawaz to Pakistan, these Arab sources are in a better position to convince him to show the required flexibility towards Musharraf. On a parallel track, Musharraf is using Brig Niaz, for whom the Sharif brothers have a lot of respect and admiration because of his past favours to the family.

There’s a hint that some deal will come this week, when Musharraf will be in London on an official visit—and by a coincidence Shahbaz Sharif and Brig Gen Niaz will be there too!

Pakistan’s The News apparently has a pipeline to the Sharif camp, and is providing breathless updates on Shahbaz Sharif’s doings in London:

LONDON: PML-N President Mian Shahbaz Sharif has confirmed that during his meeting with the trusted friend of President Pervez Musharraf, Brig (retd) Niaz, shortly before his arrival in Britain, both had discussed “important political matters” of Pakistan, but no secret message was delivered to him from the presidency.

In an exclusive interview with The News after his arrival in London, Shahbaz said he had visited the residence of Brig Niaz...Explaining the nature of his meeting which triggered reports that perhaps once again Brig Niaz was out to bridge the gap between his common friends, the Sharif brothers and Musharraf, Shahbaz said he had visited his house to pay a courtesy call.

There’s also more than a hint from the Sharif camp that these negotiations have received the endorsement of the UK:

LAHORE: PML-N President Mian Shahbaz Sharif is expected to hold important negotiations with senior officials and representatives of Pakistani government in London, The News has learnt.PML-N says Shahbaz is in London for his medical checkup, but sources claim he is there for something more important.

It is learnt that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is playing a pivotal role in brokering a dialogue between the PML-N and the government for finding some common ground before the general elections....

British premier Gordon Brown is set to be a part of the whole initiative. He, and his aide, David Miliband, are busy making this political rendezvous a success. Sources believe the political aides of Musharraf government would take part in this process. The sources said President Musharraf might also engage in the dialogue aimed at evolving consensus on a national government to allay the apprehensions of all stakeholders.

As for the United States:

The US has taken a back seat after facing open criticism in and outside Pakistan over its direct involvement in supporting specific political forces and has preferred not to engage itself directly in the reconciliatory process, leaving the task to its trusted ally in Europe, the UK.

It would be very interesting—and unlikely—that the United States would be backing a PML-N deal, given President Bush’s publicly voiced doubts back in December about Nawaz Sharif’s fitness to lead Pakistan:

The president spoke cautiously about Nawaz Sharif... "I don't know him well enough," Bush said. Sharif has good relations with Pakistan's religious parties and has raised doubts about his commitment to battling the Taliban and al-Qaida. "I would be very concerned if there was any leader in Pakistan that didn't understand the nature of the world in which we live today," Bush added.

Claims of indirect U.S. support and British enthusiasm are, I think, part wishful thinking and mostly psyops by the Musharraf and the PML-N, meant to finesse the issue of Western non-support of the PML-N by implying it’s not just the PPP that has a channel to the White House and Downing Street--and access to Western diplomatic, financial, and military aid.

Nawaz Sharif is an Islamic conservative hostile to U.S. policies for the region. His patron is Saudi Arabia, not the United States, as the passage above—describing the skid-greasing efforts of the Arab states on behalf of the Musharraf-PML-N deal—implies.

For that matter, America backing the PML-N is, to me, unthinkable. It would be an egregious betrayal of the PPP, which sacrificed its leader, Benazar Bhutto, in a futile attempt to advance America’s unpopular agenda for Pakistani politics.

To give the new unity government time to prepare for the elections, Sharif is willing to postpone the elections for a couple weeks.

This seemingly minor matter opens up a sizable fissure between the PML-N and its opposition associates (allies is now probably too strong a word), the PPP.

Delayed elections are anathema to the PPP, which has been pushing for prompt elections, paradoxically despite the widespread fears of poll-rigging that the PPP itself has energetically retailed to the international media.

As reported in Dawn, PPP number one Asif Ali Zardari is quite up front about his desire for early elections to capitalize on the sympathy vote.

And his pointed repudiation of Sharif’s position on delaying the elections indicates that the honeymoon of cooperation between the PPP and the PML-N is just about over.

SUKKUR, Jan 17: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari has said the demand for formation of a national government after the announcement of the election schedule is unjustified and against ground realities and the Constitution....“People’s sympathy for the PPP has risen after the death of Benazir Bhutto and they will vote for the party on February 18,” he said. He asked party leaders and workers to prepare for the polls so that no one could dare rig it.

A quick election under the auspices of Musharraf’s government means acquiescing to a possibly rigged election, or at least one that’s tainted by aspersions of illegitimacy.

But a delayed and legitimate poll might be even worse. A delay for any reason is probably good for Nawaz Sharif and his allies, as The News points out:

It is believed that any delay in the elections, whether a national government is formed or not, will help the PML-N and other parties to absorb the PPP sympathy wave. It is also significant that Nawaz Sharif is now talking about delaying the elections, under a new election commission, at least until his APDM partners, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Imran Khan and Mahmood Khan Achakzai, who have boycotted the polls, can make their way back into the process.

Zardari and the PPP are working to manage expectations with hypotheticals implying that the PPP might win 2/3 of the seats at issue.

There might be a titanic pro-Bhutto sympathy vote out there, but if it seems more likely to me that an honest poll, timely or not, will not return a PPP majority to parliament. A plurality—and a need to build a ruling coalition excluding the hated PML-Q and the Muslim parties that the US finds objectionable—is probably the best the PPP can hope for. That would involve dealing with Nawaz Sharif and a sizable PML-N presence in parliament.

A leaderless, diminished PPP would find itself in a difficult struggle for power with Nawaz Sharif, the only opposition leader with national stature and clout.

Under these circumstances, the PPP might consider a quick, rigged election preferable to the alternative.

Benazir Bhutto had spoken openly of resorting to the tactics of the color-coded revolution —the same approach that had elevated pro-US factions to power in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan--if the election didn’t go her way:

Bhutto has said her party will participate in the election even under imperfect circumstances. But she wants to retain the ability to challenge the vote's legitimacy if it returns Musharraf's party to power.

"We have always recognized that if elections are rigged, we must be in a position, like the people of Ukraine, to protest those elections," Bhutto said. "We reserve the right to boycott, at a later stage."

That would involve challenging the poll’s fairness with the help of sympathetic Western observers, invoking people power to paralyze the current government, and installing a new regime with the promise of Western support.

If the PPP’s plan for the political endgame includes taking advantage of electoral irregularities to launch a color-coded revolution, then a calculating willingness to participate in early elections under a corrupt regime is understandable.

Such a move would be very risky--and extremely unpopular with the Pakistani military. A people power coup would be a rebuke to the army’s treasured role of political kingmaker; it’s also the kind of political division and turmoil within Pakistan’s secular society that, in my opinion, is the last thing that nation needs as it bleeds daily from suicide attacks by extremists.

Whether the PPP is simply jockeying for political advantage or willing to ignite a mass movement, it looks like its key advantage is early elections—and its key foe is perhaps not Pervez Musharraf but Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif’s willingness to break with the PPP on the issue of election timing implies that he is sure enough of his position to burn that particular bridge to his ally of convenience in the opposition.

Zardari, trying to blunt the impact of the news that the PML-N was inching toward an accommodation with Musharraf and the army, came up with a claim conveyed to the press by the usual “well-informed sources” that I find ludicrous:

ISLAMABAD: PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari has been indirectly offered to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan for a one-year interim period, heading a government of national reconciliation, but he has summarily dismissed the suggestion.

Well-informed sources have confided that some people close to the establishment approached Zardari recently and suggested that elections could be delayed for one year and a broad-based national government formed as it was the urgent need of the hour, if he agreed to become the prime minister.

PPP co-chairman was not ready to listen to anything about further delay in the elections. He snubbed the messengers and made it clear that he was not interested in any government office for the next five years and he would only look after his party.

Party insiders said he had gained more respect from his close colleagues after turning down the proposal.


In a more practical and less risible vein, Zardari pointedly promised to carry the PPP’s electoral campaign into Nawaz Sharif’s home turf of Punjab and try to recruit the local elite to the PPP banner (I assume the rather opaque references to "confidence-building measures" is an implied promise that feasting at the public trough will not be a Sindh-only affair in a PPP administration):

[Zardari] is also planning to make Lahore as his future party headquarters because he got a lot of positive response from the Punjab after his first press conference in which he made it clear the PPP would continue the politics of federation. He will soon give some responsibilities to important leaders from the Punjab, including Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, after consulting the Central Executive Committee.

Zardari is confident that the people of the Punjab will play the same role in the upcoming elections which they had played in 1970 when the PPP emerged as the single largest party in the West Pakistan with the help of the people of the Punjab. He is sure that if the establishment tolerates the majority of the PPP in the Punjab, then he will be in a position to take more confidence-building measures with regard to the powers that matter.

So, game on! between the PPP and the PML-N.

I think we can say that the alliance of convenience established by Bhutto and Sharif last year is finished and things might get pretty ugly on the hustings.

As an alternative to going toe-to-toe with the PPP on February 18 in an acrimonious, illegitimate, and destabilizing electoral dogfight, Sharif might be hoping that the army will respond to his demand by abandoning Musharraf and enabling formation of a national unity government under the PML-N's aegis that would send Sharif's party into the polls with considerable political momentum.

Indeed, according to McClatchy, the army chief of staff is cutting some overt ties between the military and Musharraf’s government.

Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was named to the top military job in late November, took two steps this week. First, he barred all senior military officers from meeting directly with Musharraf without prior approval and prohibited officers from having any direct involvement in politics. Second, he recalled many army officers from civilian job assignments.

So Kiyani could be hanging Musharraf out to dry.

Alternately, however, Kiyani could simply be making cosmetic adjustments as a sop to popular opinion, while the serious work of political manipulation is left to the army intelligence services.

And, with the two main opposition parties clearly bickering among themselves (thanks in no little part to the judiciously spread rumors concerning a government/PML-N deal that excludes the PPP) and the prospect for a political stalemate increasing , pressures to throw Musharraf to the wolves are probably decreasing.

There’s a second scenario that might explain Sharif’s ostentatious aggressiveness. He might simply be playing a game in collusion with Musharraf that could go like this:

  • Sharif refuses to enter the government while Musharraf stays in;

  • Musharraf doesn’t budge, calls for a unity government go nowhere, the PML-N stays out of the government, and Sharif retains his credibility as an opposition leader;

  • delayed elections—and/or some more subtle than usual vote rigging--benefits the PML-N at the PPP’s expense;

  • the parliamentary election anoints Sharif and not Zardari as the power broker in the new government;

  • the Sharif brothers run the political show with the army’s endorsement;

  • here’s a second, more dispassionate look at the outrages Musharraf perpetrated on the judiciary and the constitution in order win his second term;

  • things are put right in a non-vindictive spirit of national reconciliation;

  • to everyone’s relief—including his own—Musharraf slides safely into retirement;

  • and Sharif is left alone on top of the heap.

Is there a Deal 2.0 in the works between Musharraf and the opposition, this time with the PML-N standing in for the PPP?

We might know as soon as next week, after Musharraf completes his visit to the U.K.


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