December issue 2011
A Game of Thrones: The Power Play of Pakistani Politicians
As the year draws to a close, battle lines are being drawn on the Pakistani political landscape. Parties are girding their loins for the final round of a game of thrones in which the winner gets Islamabad and losers live to fight another day.
But as the contest heats up, so does the political temperature across the nation. Rallies and jalsas are picking up pace and accusations and counter-accusations are flying with a viciousness not seen or heard in a while. Strategists are furiously punching away on their political calculators and leaders are heading back to the drawing boards to sketch battle plans as the zero hour approaches.
In short, it’s election fever.
These elections may yet be some time away. But events don’t wait for scheduled polls. November proved this yet again. Events unfolded at breakneck speed, confounding players and spectators alike, and knocked out the best laid plans. The shockwaves from Imran Khan’s Lahore jalsa continued to reverberate through November, forcing the major political players to review conventional wisdom. They now had a new contender to deal with. Fresh off his adrenalin-pumping rally, Khan barnstormed the country, utilising his newly earned bully pulpit to trash his opponents. Hordes of fresh recruits, ‘electable’ politicians, fence-sitters and a motley crew of opportunists kept lining up the whole month to latch on to the PTI freight train as it hurtled across the country on a game-changing track.
As Pakistanis struggled to make sense of this new political phenomenon, PML-N finally dug itself out of the denial mode and scampered to protect its Punjab turf. At the Faisalabad rally, Nawaz Sharif himself took centre stage to announce that he and his party could not be written off so easily. A sizeable number of people attended the rally, but the desired impact did not materialise. Jalsas organised by ruling parties, howsoever large, inevitably elicit derision, and yawns.
And speaking of ruling parties, the scandal known as Memogate slammed into the PPP government like an Improvised Explosive Device, demolishing ambassador Husain Haqqani and sending deadly political shrapnel flying into the Presidency. But more was in store for Pakistan. Strained ties with America went into a deadly tailspin when NATO helicopters launched an apparently unprovoked attack on two Pakistan army border posts in Mohmand Agency. The two-hour long assault led to the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops. An enraged Pakistani populace bayed for blood, forcing the government to cut off NATO supplies, order US evacuation of the Shamsi airbase, and boycott the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan. Was this the strategic moment that could lead to adecisive turn in ties with the US at the cusp of the Afghan endgame?
Cold December threatens to sizzle. The battle royale that is defining almost all political activity, and which now lies at the heart of it all, is the election.
The term of the government expires in February 2013. Elections then have to be held within 90 days, which means latest by May 2013. The government, however, has the right to call early polls if the timing suits it. Timing is the key. And this key is safely ensconced in the Presidency.
The president has his eyes set on March 2012. That’s when the Senate elections are due, and the PPP is expected to raise its current tally of seats to a thumping 45 or so, giving it solid control of the Upper House. Mr Zardari has been salivating for this moment for quite some time, and he will do whatever it takes to get what he wants.
Enter the PML-N. With its ramparts being stormed by PTI youth, the party has belatedly realised that its political calculations may end up going horribly wrong. Under siege from Mr Zardari’s tightly knit alliances, and threatened on its home turf by Imran Khan’s stormtroopers, the Sharifs are scampering to get a grip on the alarming situation. Their complacency has now returned to bite them where it hurts the most.
So what do they do? “We waited too long, we debated too long,” admits a sullen PML-N leader from Lahore. “Now we are on the defensive whereas we should have been on the offensive.” The belated “Go Zardari, Go” campaign, launched in fits and starts a few months ago, seems to be going nowhere. It was shoddily planned and haphazardly executed. Its objectives remain unclear. In short, it’s falling flat on its face.
Here’s why: PML-N now wants to bring down the government, or more specifically, the president. They figure early elections will suit them. But when it comes to actually making this happen, the leadership finds itself straitjacketed. They can either go the parliamentary way, or hit the streets, long-march style. The parliamentary offensive is a non-starter because they don’t have the required numbers to get a no-confidence vote against the government, or impeach the president. With ‘Option 1’ out, streets present the only other alternative.
This worked in 2009 when Nawaz Sharif mobilised massive crowds and forced the president to bend to his will and restore the judges. In the aftermath of this success, Sharif and his party basked in the glory of sweet victory, pumping their flexed political biceps and gloating over their acquired moral credibility. Sharif, it appeared, was a man of principles while Zardari was the whimpering schemer who had just been slam-dunked.
That was then. Now the party is again threatening a long march, but it’s not gaining traction with the crowds. No clear message, no clear plan and vague promises of the promised land are not cutting it with the voters. The messiah mantle, which Sharif had donned with such pride, has now been snatched away by someone else. And that too from Lahore.
What if the PML-N decides to go head-on against the government, regardless of consequences? The fear writ large is that a collision like this may get the Establishment camel back into the political tent. Who’ll be the loser then? Sharif would have cut the very branch he’s been perched on all these years.
Faced with this dilemma, the only arrow in PML-N’s quiver is the threat of mass resignations. “We’ve been talking about this option for a while now,” says a PML-N Senator. “Now the hawks are getting their way.” The senator says the decision is almost made and Nawaz Sharif has grudgingly come around to it. “It’s now only a question of when, not if,” he says. The ‘when’ could be any time after Muharram and before the Senate elections in March.
What then? Will the Sharifs huff and puff and bring the whole house down?
Here’s where it gets complicated. If PML-N does resign, the government has to hold by-elections within a stipulated time period. But when a third of the house is vacant, and that too in the final year of the five-year term, is it feasible to undertake such a massive exercise? Would the government be forced to call for early elections?
This is legal hair-splitting. Or perhaps a game of chicken to win the game of thrones. The government may go ahead and hold the Senate elections with the incomplete house, and then call for general elections. More likely, this dispute too would end up in the Supreme Court.
PML-N’s hand is also being forced by the relentless pressure of Imran Khan. He’s followed the game-changing Lahore rally with a respectable show in Chakwal and random ones in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Khan is drawing crowds — of that there is no doubt. He’s the talk of every political conversation, and anecdotal evidence points to swelling support among urban voters.
“Imran has really sexed-up Pakistani politics,” gushes a twenty-something from Islamabad. “For me, and my entire family, he’s the one.”
Parties like the PPP, PML-N, ANP, MQM, and even the former MMA are bleeding their voters to him. Not only is he bagging the formerly apolitical urban middle class professional voter, he’s reaching out and enveloping the large segment of populace disillusioned by the traditional parties. “Yeh sub chor hain” (all of them are thieves), is a common complaint heard from those who are gravitating towards Khan.
“He is now a serious electoral force,” says a former MNA who is carefully weighing his options. “And he’s growing stronger by the day.”
I asked a politician from South Punjab to weigh in on Imran’s electoral prospects. This politician is currently flirting with the PML-N and holds tremendous sway among voters in his region. His answer was startling. “I reckon if elections were held today,” he said, “Imran would pick up a minimum of 70 National Assembly seats.”
Imran’s hunting ground for now is the Punjab and KP. The Punjab alone boasts 144 NA seats, while KP has 35 seats (minus the reserved ones). This totals to 179 seats. Then, of course, there are the four provincial assemblies, and PTI claims it will field a thousand candidates.
A PML-Q leader from KP had an even more daring prediction. “With a little help from the religious votebank, and perhaps an alliance or seat adjustment with JUI-F,” he told me, “I believe Imran can make the next KP provincial government.”
It may be too early for such predictions, but what is clear is that PTI needs time to get its act together. “Ideally we would want the elections to be held not before the end of next year,” says a PTI office-bearer from Lahore. “This will give us time to put our party structures together, organise the local urban and rural cadres and find the right candidates.”
So, if the PML-N opts for street agitation to bring down the government, don’t expect PTI to join in.
And what of the ruling PPP? Till Imran Khan burst on the scene, Zardari appeared to have a neat plan under his belt. His clever-by-half manoeuvering had ensured a tightly knit alliance of PPP, PML-Q, MQM and the ANP which seemed on paper to be a winning combination. Now suddenly, the electoral prospects of this alliance are looking vulnerable. Mauled by serious governance failures and a haemorrhaging economy, the PPP and its allies appear bent over with the burden of incumbency. PML-Q is struggling to hold on to its people, the MQM is getting a credibility-whipping after its somersaults and ANP is weakened by the lacerations of poor deliverables.
Meanwhile, there’s another twist in the tale: the MMA may be returning from the grave. The JUI-F, the Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious parties have been locked in intense consultations these past weeks to revive their alliance. “I think it’s almost a done deal,” says a politician privy to these talks. “Don’t be surprised if you hear an announcement soon,” he says with barely disguised glee.
The pieces are slowly falling into place as the final electoral showdown looms over the horizon. But in Pakistan, the best laid plans have a nasty habit of going awry. The Establishment in recent days has begun to glower, and the Supreme Court is also showing signs of revived activism. After trashing the NRO review petition, the court is now hearing the Memogate affair. Watch out for politically pregnant outcomes.
Much, therefore, remains uncertain at this juncture. Political parties may be polishing their swords, but a spanner is always looming in the shadows, ready to be flung. Knight moves are no good when the whole chessboard has been overturned.
Navigating these treacherous waters is an art in itself, but politicians know they have little choice when they’re in it for the big game.
The game of thrones has begun.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Newsline under the headline “A Game of Thrones.”