February Issue 2008
Time For a Change
Never before in Pakistan’s history has an election campaign been so dull and lacklustre. Indeed, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto casts a shadow of gloom, but it is also something to do with a lack of trust in the whole process. There is little hope of elections bringing any political stability with Musharraf sticking to power. There is a growing fear that the election results may sharpen polarisation and intensify the politics of confrontation. The main opposition parties participating in the polls express their doubts that they will be free and fair. President Musharraf, whose own legitimacy is controversial, has done little to alleviate these misgivings. A more serious post-election crisis is looming large.
Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has completely changed the political dynamics, generating a huge sympathy wave for her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The PML-Q’s chance of returning to power has further diminished with the worsening economic situation hitting the middle- and lower-middle classes. The PML-N seems to have gained ground, particularly in the Punjab, at the expense of the rival pro-Musharraf faction. A recent opinion poll conducted by Gallup showed that 68% of Pakistanis want Musharraf to step down. His growing unpopularity is indicative of vanishing support for his allies. The PML-Q leaders who, until a few weeks ago, were confident of winning at least 100 seats will now find it hard to get more than 50. The party is in complete disarray with many of its candidates secretly negotiating with the PML-N to return to the fold. Any effort by the administration to rig the elections could provoke a violent backlash. Many in the government admit that an election result in favour of the PML-Q would be rejected by the people.
The PPP is likely to sweep the polls in its stronghold in rural Sindh, with MQM retaining its dominance in urban areas. The PPP is also likely to perform well in both the southern and central parts of the Punjab. The party may also gain ground in the NWFP after the disintegration of the the MMA and growing disenchantment with the Islamists who ruled the restive province for five years. The JUI-F is the only major component of the Islamic alliance which is participating in the polls and has entered into seat adjustments with the PML-Q.
The Punjab remains politically divided, with the PML-N expected to do much better in the urban areas. The triangular fight for most of the seats, with the PML-N and the PML-Q vying for the same vote bank, may help the PPP to seize some more seats in the province. The boycott by the Jamaat-i-Islami may help the PML-N grab the conservative Islamic votes. The party may also win some seats in the NWFP, particularly in the Hazara district which has traditionally been a stronghold of the PML-N. The disintegration of the MMA may benefit the ANP the most and help it in regaining some of the ground it lost in the last elections. The situation in Balochistan, however, remains unchanged with the pro-establishment tribal chiefs holding sway as Baloch nationalists stay away. The Pashtun belt remains the JUI-P domain.
With the tide firmly turned against him, President Musharraf may not get the kind of result he has been hoping for. Given the current domestic and international environment, it has become increasingly difficult for the administration to rig the polls. Even in a relatively fair election there is no possibility of the PML-Q forming a government. That would leave Musharraf in a serious quandary. There is every likelihood of the PPP emerging as the largest party, but it may not be able to form a government on its own. Musharraf’s greatest fear is that the PPP and the PML-N will join hands, which would certainly mean an end to his presidency.
In an attempt to avoid such a situation, Musharraf has kept a back channel with the PPP open. He has repeatedly indicated that he could work with Amin Fahim as prime minister, but there is still no assurance that the PPP would agree to play ball. The controversy over the investigation into Benazir’s assassination has widened the differences between Musharraf and the PPP leadership. Musharraf’s recent statements over the circumstances of Benazir’s murder have not helped ease the tension. Musharraf’s antipathy towards Benazir was evident, when in a recent interview with Newsweek, he declared that the PPP leader was not popular with the army. A major question, however, is whether the PPP will salvage the situation for the embattled president.
There is also an attempt by the presidential camp to strike some kind of deal with the PML-N. But most observers agree that there is no possibility of the two bitter rivals co-existing in power. Nawaz Sharif has publicly declared that his party will not join any government under Musharraf. Sharif, who returned home after ending his eight-year-long forced exile, appears quite confident that Musharraf’s days are numbered. Many of the PML-Q candidates are already in contact with Sharif and could jump ship come crunch time.
Musharraf’s power has already eroded with his stepping down as army chief. There is a big question mark over whether the army will continue to back him if the crisis worsens after the elections. There are already signs of the army distancing itself from its former chief. The new Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani has made it very clear that the army will not be involved in the elections. He has also pulled out army officers serving in civilian institutions. Indeed, the steps have been taken to restore the military’s position, which has hit a new low over the past few years. With the army now concentrating more on fighting the terrorism engulfing northern Pakistan, it cannot afford to be at the centre of a political controversy. Can Musharraf survive without the active backing of the army, which had been his main power base?
Musharraf has often said he would quit when he felt people did not want him any more. He should see the writing on the wall now.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.