Friday, February 27, 2009

Pakistan: The Final F*ck-Up

There will be plenty more screw-ups in Pakistan, but the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision banning Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from elected office will probably be remembered as the biggee, the reckless piece of political gamesmanship by Asif Zardari that sent Pakistan’s current experiment in democracy sliding into the abyss.

Briefly put, the Pakistani government led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, is unpopular because of its pro-U.S. policy vis a vis the insurgency and Zardari’s personal reputation for corruption and feckless Machiavellianism.

Sharif--who was Prime Minister until Musharraf removed him in 1999-- leads the other democratic party, the PML-N. He’s probably the most popular politician in Pakistan because of his conciliatory attitude toward the border militants, his distance from the United States, and an ostentatious regard for Islam. His political base is the economic and electoral powerhouse of Punjab, which—until yesterday—was run by his brother Shahbaz.

Zardari and Sharif have been jockeying for advantage but the handwriting was on the wall: come the next general election, Sharif’s PML-N would probably dominate and his party would gain the prime ministership.

So the Supreme Court, whose chief justice is close to Zardari, made its move on February 25 to bar the Sharif brothers from elected office for life because of criminal convictions related to the coup by Pervez Musharraf that removed Nawaz from office in 1999.

The strict legal merits of the convoluted case are open to debate, but any question as to whether this was a power grab by Zardari was dispelled when the central government suspended the Punjab provincial assembly—which had a PML-N plurality and would not have had much difficulty in selecting a successor to Shabaz from Sharif’s party to take over—and instituted “governor’s law” for two months. The governor is a central government appointee hailing from Zardari’s PPP party and Zardari now has two months for bribery and armtwisting to try and cobble together a new governing coalition that will exclude the PML-N from Punjab’s provincial government.

Sharif is now considering whether his popular support is broad and deep enough to bring down the government in a mass demonstration and sit-in already scheduled for March 16 to protest the composition of the judiciary (see this AP story for a rundown of why the judiciary issue is at the heart of Pakistan’s political struggles).

Alternately, Sharif can try to round up allies in parliament to bring down the government and force new elections.

However, the key question will be whether the army will do something first.

It’s now pretty obvious that the cease-fire with the Pakistan Taliban and agreement to allow the imposition of sharia law in the valley of Swat was part of Zardari’s effort to keep a lid on things in the border regions so he could concentrate on the threat of unrest in Punjab and Islamabad from Sharif’s supporters after the Supreme Court decision.

Of course, giving the Pakistani Taliban a free hand to prepare and participate in the massive offensive against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan scheduled for this spring under Mullah Omar’s direction is not exactly prudent, wise, or morally defensible.

It’s quite possible that Zardari will renege on the deal with the Taliban if and when he feels he has the Sharif situation under control and resume his designated role as America’s willing if not particularly able and honorable client.

However, if Zardari can’t quiet things in Punjab and resume military activities in the Pashtun areas and everything turns to ordure, the United States might decide that there’s no alternative to another round of military rule.

Asia Times’ Syed Saleem Shahzad lays it out:

The situation in Pakistan impacts heavily on Afghanistan. The Taliban-led insurgency relies to a large degree on its bases inside Pakistan and the latest ceasefires in the tribal areas will allow the Taliban uninterrupted preparations for its spring offensive.

The Taliban, therefore, want the political uncertainty to continue as the central government will continue to leave them in peace.

Washington, on the other hand, will view the political turmoil in horror and will possibly back the military to take some form of initiative, at the least in dealing with the militants.

In this regard, the visit by Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani to Washington on February 20 could turn out to be crucial as to date he has advocated neutrality in political matters. The US might have tried to convince him otherwise.

China is also never far from the thoughts of Pakistani politicians.

China doesn’t like Zardari because of his pro-American stance and his support for the U.S. strategy that would create an alliance of Afghan, Pakistani, and Indian democracies blocking China from South Asia.

Nevertheless, Zardari does his inimitable best to try and convince the public of his closeness to Beijing.

He has vowed to visit China every quarter and, indeed, just returned from China.

However, Zardari only toured the Three Gorges Dam and visited Wuhan. Significantly, he didn’t meet with any high Chinese officials. The excuse was that everybody in Beijing was tied up with Hillary Clinton.

In a Chinese context, Zardari visiting China when he couldn’t secure a meeting with his opposite number, PRC President Hu Jintao, or any other important central government official, was a major, self-inflicted loss of face that will further diminish him in the eyes of the Chinese.

I expect Zardari did not give the Chinese head’s up that he was going to move against Sharif, and the Chinese will remember that instead he used China for a photo op to show he was on board with Pakistan’s most important ally while he was scheming against Sharif.

Until now, the Chinese government hasn’t officially weighed in on the unfolding political drama and the media is just translating western press reports—another sign that Beijing was blindsided.

Zardari, whose personal popularity was at 19% before the crisis, might be able to use his control of central government institutions to wriggle his way out this jam.

But Pakistan elite opinion is appalled--The News turned over its editorial and op-ed pages to six scathing denunciations of Zardari--the number of his enemies has only increased, and it's difficult to escape the feeling his days are numbered.

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