February Issue 2008

By | Published 16 years ago

Pakistan’s ubiquitous establishment might be a super manipulator, but close to the February 18 elections, it is facing its toughest time ever since the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-77). Mr. Bhutto, the country’s first elected prime minister, used his populism to keep down the scheming generals, bureaucrats and politicians, but in the end he was overthrown and sentenced to death. This time there is no overbearing individual, just unique circumstances that are ostensibly forcing the establishment led by General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf to retreat from the seat of power it has occupied for a decade.

Background interviews with senior military and intelligence officials, besides lengthy meetings with different party leaders, suggest that two distinct events have set in place the process of the demise of the old order that is likely to be hastened by the upcoming polls: first, the separation of the offices of the chief of army staff and president and second, the assassination of Ms Benazir Bhutto. These two events happening back-to-back have thrown out of gear the standard plans of the Musharraf regime to continue with its controlled and manipulated democracy. Elections, which were once supposed to be a mere endorsement of the status quo, now seem to have become seminal to the recasting of national politics.

The new army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, has set in motion a steady and swift process of the army’s disengagement from the political affairs of the country, meeting the longstanding demand of civil society and the political parties that the political deck be cleared of the presence of the army brass. Army sources confirm that by taking this step the new chief has only delivered on what the institution really wanted. These sources say that General Musharraf’s troubled engagement in politics, particularly during the last one year, has earned the army its worst public image ever. So much so that the uniform, a symbol of pride and authority for members of the armed forces, has become a stigma to hide and a red rag to an enraged public emotion.

election-kayani-feb08Apart from issuing direct orders to all military men to cut off their links with politics, General Kayani is also rolling back the army from publicly prominent deployments such as monitoring duties in civilian institutions, postings in the National Accountability Bureau, Interior Ministry, etc. Organisations like the FWO and NLC, will also be handed over to civilians in the next six months.

Ironically, these ‘about-turn on politics’ orders have the most profound political implications that can be imagined. In one go, these steps have blasted a big hole in the base of the existing order. For instance, the intrusive role of the Military Intelligence, which was largely seen by the opposition as General Musharraf’s favourite tool to fix political problems, has now been reduced to insignificance. The agency is being redeployed to its original work that suffered due to its deep involvement in national politics.

The army’s return to the barracks has also considerably diluted the stamp of extra authority that General Musharraf has tried to put on all his steps following his retirement. The symbolism of keeping the army house in his custody and generous references to General Kayani as his protégé of sorts were aimed at giving the impression that Musharraf represented a continuity which the army fully backed and wanted.

However, the speed with which General Kayani has moved to disengage the army from politics has nullified the propagation of this impression. In fact, a counter-impression has been created that General Musharraf is really on his own and should not be associated in any way with the armed forces. By far, the most significant evidence of how eager the new army command is to sever links with their retired army chief, is a reiteration by the ISPR that all troop deployment during the election time shall be for purposes of “law and order maintenance only.” The army high command, it is clear, does not want to give even a quarter to the mantra of free and fair elections that is being chanted by General Musharraf.

Explaining the stand, a senior official told Newsline that the army does not want to be seen to be associated with the process of elections because, “if these are not free and fair, either in reality or in popular perception, the blame would fly fast towards those who supervised them and it is not going to be us.”

This sense of explosive controversies centering on elections is heightened by the new dynamics unleashed by Ms Bhutto’s tragic death. The initial assessments in the presidential camp of being able to “engage with the post-Benazir PPP more effectively” is giving way to the grim reality that political life has become slightly more complex now.

The PPP leadership has sensed that while Ms Bhutto’s loss is devastating, at least for the upcoming elections, their party has the opportunity to bounce back with a vengeance. And they are in no mood to take General Musharraf seriously.

So while Musharraf is putting up a brave public face, insisting that he is here to stay, insiders say that his camp managers are worried sick that the elections might precipitate a calamitous situation for their boss. These worries, some of which are shared by the PML-Q as well, flow out of the fact that the pre-Benazir assassination script has become completely redundant. Now, as one intelligence official puts it, “All outcomes look problematic and each, more than the other.”

The most preferred scenario would have been a straightforward victory for the General Musharraf-backed PML-Q, which, once in power, would have been a perfect companion for the retired general’s dream-come-true journey of five additional years in power. That scene looks improbable as intelligence assessments available to Newsline do not give more than 50 seats to the PML-Q. And that too is put under the heading of “best-case-scenario.” These assessments are way off, say PML-Q leaders. Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, former chief minister of the Punjab, says that his party is going to win at least 110 out of the total 272 National Assembly seats and 60% of the 577 provincial assembly seats. He calls the doomsday scenario for the Q-League as pure disinformation. Leaving aside the debate on the numbers that different parties would notch up in the upcoming elections, there are very few in the establishment who believe that a Q-League government at the centre and in the Punjab is possible, or even wise.

A workable alternative to the pro-Musharraf League in power would have been a healthy arrangement between them and the PPP. Intelligence sources confirm that the option, attempted again after the assassination of Ms Benazir Bhutto, by interlocutors of General Musharraf, drew only derision from her party. “The two parties are poles apart and are now also locked in blood-sport politics,” says a senior member of the shrivelled Musharraf camp, who admits that the PPP is in no mood to even consider the Q-League as a serious competitor, much less a potential partner to run the state of Pakistan.

Peoples Party insiders claim that they are more inclined to forge an alliance with the Pakistan Muslim League-N than with any other party. “We are also counting on a group of independents who will declare themselves after their electoral victory; some of them have indicated that they would resign and contest again in case party loyalty is used as a way to block their way,” says a PPP source, who claims to have a list of 20 such members of the PML-Q from the Punjab alone.

Such claims might be propaganda, but these do underline the direction of PPP politics these days. For the diehard detractors of the retired general in the Nawaz League camp, this is a godsend. “There is not even a debate in our party ranks and among our leaders: given half a chance we would throw Musharraf out of power,” says a prominent Nawaz League leader, who travelled with the former prime minister back to London and still carries the physical scars of the beatings he took when General Musharraf took over in October 12, 1999.

This passion for removing Musharraf translates into the most murky threat facing the existing political order built around the retired general. “Elections should throw up a stable arrangement because the country can ill-afford another bout of political troubles, but the alignment of political forces at this point does not foretell that kind of a situation,” says a member of the Intelligence Bureau dealing with the politics of the Punjab.

There are reasons other than revenge or anger that are at the root of the growing possibility of a PPP-PML-N combine preparing to bring Musharraf down. Any winner of the elections other than the PML-Q, would want to look for a scapegoat for the impending challenges that the future government would have to handle. Expanding terrorism, an economic downturn, lawlessness and the back-breaking cost of living, have combined to make governance a nightmare. A new government would like to pin the whole blame on the previous lot, out of whom, only General Musharraf survives. Only he represents the continuity of the present system and, therefore, would be an ideal target for all that might go wrong after the elections.

“The country has suffered because one man has ruled this country for a decade and made a mess of it,” says Dr Zubair Khan, a staff member of the International Monetary Fund, who also claims that whenever he tried to render sound advice to the ruling junta it fell on deaf ears.

Jehangir Tareen, former minister for industries, agrees that the present situation is seen by the voters as a direct result of the misgovernance of the last many years.

“Voters are angry, and thanks to the media remarkably well-informed. They believe that the country has been rudderless all these years. They will make the incumbent pay for the trouble their lives are in,” says Mr Tareen who, being a former member of the federal cabinet himself, anticipates a tough competition in a constituency where he once thought he was totally secure.

The other reason for shaking the throne of General Musharraf is the burden of his personal stakes. For one thing, no two parties other than the PML-Q and the MQM see him as someone who could forge consensus in the country.

“The original percentage of votes for the two parties (in 2002) is 24% and 4%, which means that the remaining 72% of the voters do not want General Musharraf around,” says Dr Ijaz Shafi Gillani, chairman of Gallup International in Pakistan.

General Musharraf’s presence carries for the parliament-to-be a most complex agenda. The new assemblies will have to first decide the issue of the legitimacy of his presidency along with providing indemnities to the unconstitutional acts undertaken during and after Musharraf’s second coup on November 3. In other words, the parliament will be asked to forge a consensus to pass the 18th Amendment in favour of the president or else the constitution cannot be fully revived. The 17th Amendment took nearly three years to be passed and even then it created gaping holes in the constitution, giving General Musharraf powers and privileges that became the perpetual bone of contention between the political parties and the Presidency. Over and above all of this is the unresolved issue of the judiciary’s independence and that of the incarcerated judges and leaders of the lawyers’ movement. They cannot be kept in custody forever, and yet the moment they are released they will restart the movement for the ouster of General Musharraf. So just when the country needs an absolutely united and combined focus on the expanding threat of the war against terrorism, divisive issues are littering the national scene. Elections are taking place against a background that is tightly filled with dangerous possibilities. But these could also become the trigger to end an inglorious era of trickery and tragedy.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.