Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pakistan's Dangerous Days

I hesitate to disagree with Juan Cole, one of the few genuine experts posting regularly on Islam and the politics of the Middle East and South Asia.

However, I do take issue with his most recent post on the burgeoning crisis in Pakistan.

The lawyers are marching, Nawaz Sharif is piggybacking his political struggle with Asif Zardari on top of the movement, the government is arresting activists and mobilizing to block the march, and everything is building toward a confrontation if and when the marchers reach Islamabad.

A genuine crisis is burgeoning in Pakistan and responsibility for mismanaging Pakistan's transition to civilian rule can, in my opinion, be laid firmly at the feet of President (and co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party or PPP), Asif Zardari.

Cole, while recounting some of Zardari’s sins, seems to reserve the bulk of his grumbling for Nawaz Sharif:

On the other hand, Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif, who spent nearly a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia, seems to me to have gone round the bend. He has been threatening a rebellion and a revolution against the elected government, which which he had initially been allied. Now he is more or less accusing his PPP rivals of planning to whack him.

Sharif's incendiary rhetoric about a revolution and raising the standard of rebellion appears to have provoked the government to invoke section 144. If he had instead pledged a non-violent protest, perhaps it could have gone forward.

The ability to lose an election gracefully and to act as a loyal opposition is a key prerequisite for a party to participate in parliamentary democracy. The Muslim League is signally failing in that regard. Nawaz Sharif has long had dictatorial tendencies, and when he was last prime minister in the mid- to late-1990s, he started closing down newspapers, jailing journalists and editors, and stacking the decks against other parties.

As for the issue of the deposed supreme court, I don't understand why parliament could not simply pass legislation for a one-time measure to retire the justices appointed by the dictatorship and to appoint new ones, who would have legitimacy since they would be appointees of a popularly elected government. Iftikhar Chaudhury was brave to stand up to Musharraf in 2007, but he did validate Musharraf's coup, and Musharraf made him chief justice, in 2005. So you could argue that his original appointment was the fruit of a poisoned tree. It is odd that Sharif is so insistent on his return to the bench, since Chaudhury helped prolong Sharif's exile and justified the 1999 coup against him.

I would argue that the salient points of the current crisis are these.

Zardari is unpopular inside Pakistan, personally and because of his alliance with the United States.

He knows he’s unpopular. The ghost of Benazir Bhutto won the general election for the PPP, not Asif Zardari. And everything he’s done since the election has made him more unpopular. Zardari’s numbers are now somewhere in the teens, where Musharraf was just before he left office.

Instead of trying to adopt more popular policies, Zardari decided to leverage his position at the head of the PPP party and government to eliminate political rivals, while presenting himself to the United States as, if not the indispensable man, someone who is useful and tractable.

Soon after the general elections, Zardari moved against the PPP’s old guard, which never accepted him and considered him a corrupt and feckless interloper.

Then, by reneging on the agreement to reinstate the Supreme Court justices, he pushed Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N party out of the cabinet (until recently, the PML-N had agreed to vote with the PPP government) and worked to undercut the PML-N led government in the Sharif brothers’ political base of Punjab.

Zardari also made the distasteful and dangerous decision to ally, for the purposes of his government’s parliamentary majority, both with the PML-Q (the despised “king’s party” created by Musharraf out of the ruins of the PML after he deposed Sharif) and the MQM, the violent, thuggish party that controls Karachi and draws its power from its willingness (unmatched by any other mainstream party) to deploy goons for riot, mayhem, and murder against the enemies of the MQM and its allies.

Zardari mounted a concerted but largely unsuccessful campaign to blacken the reputation and undercut the political strength of the lawyer’s movement. In the midst of a fracas late last year that looks to have been a PPP provocation, MQM “lawyers” obligingly killed five genuine lawyers during a riot in Karachi.

Given Zardari’s unpopularity and the unpopularity of his alliance with the United States, his best hope for continued political ascendancy lay in neutralizing Sharif, which he apparently did through the mechanism of the Supreme Court ruling banning the Sharif brothers from elected office.

Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, has played his political cards with a great deal more acumen.

Derided in the West as a dull and doughy opportunist on the strength of his undistinguished Prime Ministership in the 1990s, Sharif re-invented himself during his exile in Saudi Arabia. On the superficial level, he invested in hair plugs and honed his public style to compete with the charismatic politics of Benazir Bhutto. On the tactical level, he re-invented the PML-N as an issues-based popular party in contrast with the PPP, which traffics in the more traditional politics of Sindh chauvinism and ward-heeling.

The issues that Sharif has seized upon are the primacy of civil society over military rule, democracy, and restoration of the judiciary that Musharraf deposed. He has eschewed an overt alliance with the United States in favor of a more conciliatory attitude toward Islamicism.

As a result, Sharif is very popular.

Very, very popular.

The latest polling from the Institute for a Terror Free Tomorrow (despite its Orwellian name, TFT is the absolute gold standard for polling in Pakistan, far outperforming the high profile International Republican Institute) dates to the middle of last year, but I doubt things have changed significantly:

Mr. Sharif has also seen a steady rise in his popularity, from 57 percent favorable in our August 2007 poll, to 74 percent in January 2008 and 86 percent today. As significantly, those with a very favorable opinion have almost doubled since January 2008 to 43 percent now—a level no other political figure in Pakistancomes even close to. (By comparison, Mr. Zardari, leader of the PPP, just has a 13% very favorable rating.)

If national elections were held today, Mr. Sharif’s party, the PML-N, would emerge as the clear winner, garnering 42 percent of the vote to the PPP’s 32 percent.

In summary: Nawaz Sharif is dealing from strength. Zardari is floundering to stay afloat.

What this means for subsequent events in Pakistan:

Time is on Nawaz Sharif’s side.

Zardari’s approvals are in the teens and will only go lower as a result of the current crisis.

Sharif, aware of his strength, will play his cards extremely cannily, maintaining his high profile alliance with the popular lawyer’s movement. He will not precipitate a political collapse that would negate his stratospheric political standing by plunging Pakistan into chaos and perhaps bringing a return to military rule.

During the previous lawyer's march, in June 2008, Sharif endorsed the movement but apparently restrained the marchers from an open-ended sit-in in Islamabad that would have challenged the existence of Zardari's government. Instead of showing gratitude for Sharif's help in making the march fizzle, Zardari continued to try and undercut the Sharif brothers.

This time, Nawaz Sharif will be determined to emerge from the struggle with a clear political victory.

In my opinion, Sharif will keep up the pressure until Zardari is forced to make a humiliating concession and let the PML-N regain control of the Punjab government. Then Sharif will continue his maneuvering to ensure that the terminally-weakened Zardari and his unpopular PPP are trounced in the next general election.

I think that Juan Cole makes a mis-step when he dismisses Nawaz Sharif for having gone “around the bend” in accusing “his PPP rivals of trying to whack him”.

Murder is never far from the surface in Pakistani politics. Benazir Bhutto was murdered. Her father was hung. There are persistent rumors that Bhutto orchestrated the murder in 1996 of her brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, who was a Marxist extremist and an embarrassment.

In an LA Times op-ed in November 2007, Benazir Bhutto’s niece wrote:

My father was a member of Parliament and a vocal critic of his sister's politics. He was killed outside our home in 1996 in a carefully planned police assassination while she was prime minister. There were 70 to 100 policemen at the scene, all the streetlights had been shut off and the roads were cordoned off. Six men were killed with my father. They were shot at point-blank range, suffered multiple bullet wounds and were left to bleed on the streets.

My father was Benazir's younger brother. To this day, her role in his assassination has never been adequately answered, although the tribunal convened after his death under the leadership of three respected judges concluded that it could not have taken place without approval from a "much higher" political authority.

The Zardari government is threatening to charge Sharif with sedition—a capital crime.

And the fact that considerable advantages would accrue if Nawaz Sharif were to suddenly disappear from public life has doubtless crossed the mind of the embattled Asif Zardari.

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Did the US pressure China not to offer the loan ? Did they offer China inducements for not offering the loan ?

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