January issue 2013

By | Cover Story | Published 7 years ago

In a country where anything can happen any time, forecasting is a hazardous and potentially embarrassing business. This is even more so in the realm of national politics, where even a day can be a very long time.  Those who have defied this unwritten law have had to cut a particularly sorry figure. Last year’s sensational stories about the ‘imminent collapse’ of the present government now seem like redundant text as the Pakistan People’s Party and its allies make it to their fifth and final year in power. There has not been a military takeover, nor has a judicial coup landed President Asif Ali Zardari in jail. Gas and electricity shortages, coupled with back-breaking inflation, have inspired public protests and ruined the lives of millions, but they have not created a Tahrir Square in the heart of Islamabad.  The dark forecasts about an economic meltdown have not come true, although  micro and macro economic indicators are depressed and extremely worrying.

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President Zardari’s penchant for turning the presidency into a party secretariat is well-known and if that continues, his presence on the scene while the elections are being planned might become a big bone of contention.

However, that is not to say the national scene will be free of upheaval in 2013 and the upcoming elections are a case in point. Barring a cataclysmic development — a string of assassinations of leading politicians, outbreak of war with India, or other events on such a huge scale — the run-up to the election is likely to become strong. Political parties will campaign hard and election fever will begin to overwhelm everything else in the country. However, this will not be a cakewalk. Controversies surrounding voters’ lists, contestants’ qualifications and the mother of them all, a neutral caretaker set-up will hound all the stakeholders, including the Election Commission. This institution will have a hard time creating enough goodwill among all the political parties to ensure that the results are acceptable even to the losers.

BRITAIN-PAKISTAN-JUSTICE-SHARIF-KHANKarachi may prove to be the hardest nut to crack for a smooth movement towards elections. However, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa will be just as tough propositions. It will be interesting to see whether the aging, but still spirited, Fakhruddin G Ibrahim will be able sit through this dizzying roller coaster ride in the run-up to the elections. He is already showing signs of exhaustion and may be inclined to throw in the towel if the howls of protests and competing demands become too loud for him.

But the biggest challenges to a strong campaign for the elections will come from two other factors. One is the entire process through which the caretaker set-up is selected, and the other the deteriorating law and order situation combined with the spectre of terrorism that has started to stalk the land as never before. The People’s Party’s hope is to strike a deal with Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League-N on the caretaker set-up. This may sound pretty doable, but the caretaker set-up is not just about these two parties’ cherry picking persons of their own choice. Constitutional requirements aside, out-of-parliament factors like the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, and Baloch, Sindhi and Pashtoon nationalist parties cannot be left out in the cold or else the agreement on the set-up to supervise the elections might encounter severe criticism and doubt.

Already, dubious forces like Dr Tahirul Qadri are joining hands with the MQM and turning on the heat of protest before the elections. Their agitation, while reeking of typical ultra-constitutional agendas, could throw a spanner in the works.

The role of the presidency can also inject complications in the effort to ensure neutrality of the caretaker set-up. President Zardari’s penchant for turning the presidency into a party secretariat is well-known and if that continues, which it most likely will, his presence on the scene while the elections are being planned might become a big bone of contention.

The army too will push its views hard as the caretaker set-up is planned. For the generals, who have stayed put but been generally quiet for five years, any breakdown of the system due to political controversy could lead to a forced take-over or, in the worst case scenario, unravelling of the state.

PAKISTAN-UNREST-POLITICSA caretaker set-up, which is not just about the prime minister and his cabinet but also about four governors and four chief ministers, constructed over and above the Army’s head, or behind its back, might not stick. The more so since almost everyone, including the Election Commission, is turning towards General Headquarters to ensure free and fair elections. Therefore, those who head the caretaker set-up — the list is very long of the wannabe caretaker prime ministers — have to have genuine political consensus and the blessings of the army to carry out the task. On top of it all, the caretaker prime minister can’t just be a symbolic figure, he (or she) will have to have the capacity to understand the dynamics of national politics, and just as importantly, the challenges of the national economy. An ideal candidate from that angle is likely to be a political economist, but finding the right combination will be hard.

However, all this effort shall come to naught if the state apparatus continues to fold up before the tidal wave of terrorism. The closing days of December 2012 — when Balochistan was rocked by sectarian killings through suicide attack, when militants massacred security forces personnel just outside Peshawar, and Karachi witnessed multiple explosions apart from the usual dozens of targeted killings — summed up the trend for the new year. This bloody storm will not abate without decisive action from the state. This action however is not on the cards even as the new year sets in. From KPK to Karachi, and from the Taftan border in Balochistan to the heart of the Punjab, organised crime is mingling with foreign-funded and home-nurtured terror networks. They attack the state at will and get away with it. There is every reason to believe that any strong action against these networks would entail a nationwide reaction from them that could cause massive bloodletting. The political parties that want the elections to be on time, fear that the ensuing mayhem could derail the whole process and make the army, the necessary spearhead of any such action, the arbiter of political matters. However, delaying a response to spiralling terrorism itself poses grave dangers to the electoral process. Killing machines are mowing down citizens in the urban areas by the dozens: the last seven days of December alone threw up 108 dead bodies, a conservative figure based on reported cases. Terrorists and suicide attackers have the capacity to turn public gatherings into mincemeat. No one is challenging them. How will elections, a massive public activity, be held? Closer to the elections, law and order will be the most severe challenge to a smooth transition to the next government.

The coming year will also see heightened jostling among the judiciary, the army, the presidency, and those vying to capture power at the centre, viz, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. None of the five factors have any love lost among them and each distrusts the other in varying degrees of intensity. For Nawaz Sharif, an ideal scenario is timely elections producing a N-League led government at the centre. He would not mind President Asif Ali Zardari staying in the presidency for some time while he works the new parliament to oust or replace him — the good old solution that was applied to the late Farooq Leghari. President Zardari, for his part, is looking for another term, and he would like the People’s Party to remain in a critical position after the elections in deciding the fate of the new government. He can cut a deal with Nawaz Sharif now, hold the elections, secure a second term and then turn the tables on the Nawaz League later. Imran Khan wants to see both of them out and hung on the highest pole. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary would want to complete, what he believes is his own agenda, of reform and may aim for an extension of his tenure on legal grounds to meet that aim. General Kayani, who is big on leaving a golden legacy for historians to remember him by, will have to balance growing frustration within his institution and his policy of reconciliation with the present political order. In any case, the next elections promise more of the same, or if pre-election chaos spreads far and wide jeopardising what the army believes are core state interests, he just might review his plans.

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The closing days of December 2012 — when Balochistan was rocked by sectarian killings through suicide attack, when militants massacred security forces personnel just outside Peshawar, and Karachi witnessed multiple explosions apart from the usual dozens of targeted killings — summed up the trend for the new year.

The tussle and tension of the agendas of these powerful actors is bound to make the new year more complex than the last one. By that token, it would be no less than a miracle if 2013 sees a free, fair, and timely election, a new government, a new president, a new chief of army staff and chief justice and, most of all what everyone has long been waiting for — a new Pakistan.

For Nawaz Sharif, an ideal scenario is timely elections producing a N-League led government at the centre. He would not mind President Asif Ali Zardari staying in the presidency for some time while he works the new parliament to oust or replace him — the good old solution that was applied to the late Farooq Leghari. Imran Khan, meanwhile, wants to see both of them out and hung on the highest pole.

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