PAKISTAN: PRE-ELECTION POLITICAL SCENE
Mrs.Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People's Party, which has decided to contest the forthcoming elections, started her election campaign inthe North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) on December 1,2007. This was a brave and shrewd move.
2. Brave because pro-Al Qaeda jihadi terrorism, which has seen an upsurge since the Army's commando action in the Lal Masjid ofIslamabad from July 10 to 13,2007, has spread from the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to the Provincially-Administered TribalAreas (PATA) of the NWFP. Any campaign to roll it back has to start from the NWFP. The Army under Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani has beentrying to roll it back from the Swat Valley, but with mixed results. No non-Pashtun political leader has so far ventured into the NWFP in anattempt to rally the people around a political campaign against the jihadis. She faces tremendous risk to her physical security in the NWFP.The fact that in spite of that she went there speaks well of her physical courage.
3. Shrewd because whether she gets an absolute majority or not in the forthcoming elections to the National Assembly would largelydepend on the votes she would get from the Pashtuns of the NWFP and Balochistan. Ever since she took over the leadership of the PPP inthe 1980s, her political power has depended on the support of the Sindhis in rural Sindh, the Seraikis in Southern Punjab and the Pashtunsin the NWFP and Balochistan. She has never been able to win much support from the Mohajirs in urban Sindh, the blue-blooded Punjabis innorthern Punjab (also sometimes referred to as central Punjab) and the Balochs.
4. Despite her nearly a decade of political exile, her vote base in rural Sindh remains intact and she will do very well there even if she doesnot personally campaign there. There has been some weakening of her vote base in the Seraiki areas where the Pakistan Muslim League(Qaide Azam), engineered by President Pervez Musharraf ,has made some inroads, but with vigorous campaigning, she and her party shouldbe able to re-build their support to their pre-1999 level.
5. The maximum weakening of her support has been in the Pashtun areas due to the machinations of Musharraf in those areas before the2002 elections. He induced a number of traditional Pashtun leaders of the PPP such as Mr.Aftab Khan Sherpao, the present Interior Minister,to desert her and support the PML (QA). He also financially and otherwise helped the religious fundamentalist parties opposed to her tomake inroads into the traditional PPP strongholds in the Pashtun areas. The result: The coalition of religious fundamentalist parties calledthe Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) won an absolute majority in the NWFP Provincial Assembly and emerged as the largest political formationin the Balochistan Provincial Assembly. This was one of the important factors, which contributed to the come-back staged by the NeoTaliban and to the spread of jihadi terrorism in the Pashtun areas.
6. If the PPP has to emerge as the largest political formation, even if not with an absolute majority, in the forthcoming elections, it has toretrieve the ground lost by it in the Pashtun belt due to the machinations of Musharraf. In the limited time available to her, she has tore-organise her party in the NWFP, find new and energetic leaders and encourage them to thwart a fresh attempt by Musharraf and the PML(QA) to deprive the PPP of Pashtun support.
7. Presuming the Pakistan Muslim League of Mr.Nawaz Sharif sticks to its decision to boycott the elections, which would be ill-advised,three political formations are expected to do well---the PPP in rural Sindh, southern Punjab and possibly in the NWFP, Mr.Altaf Hussain'sMuttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in urban Sindh and the PML (QA) in northern Punjab. The Awami National Party (ANP) of moderatePashtuns and the fundamentalist Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI) of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, which are also contesting the elections, may win ahandful of seats in the Pashtun constituencies.
8.If the PPP wins an absolute majority----which at present looks doubtful---- Musharraf will not be able to overlook Benazir's claim to be thePrime Minister. The US will also support her strongly. If no formation gets an absolute majority and if a coalition is to be formed, Musharrafwill have some room for manipulation to undemine her chances of becoming the Prime Minister.
9.She is very keen to become the Prime Minister. She thinks----not without reason---- that if she does, she would be able to push Musharrafinto the company of former Presidents Ghulam Ishaq khan and Farooq Leghari, who ended in the dustbin of history because they had nopopular support despite all their powers. All the powers, which Musharraf has accumulated in his hands by manipulating the Constitution,might be of no avail if Gen.Kiyani, the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), stays neutral or, better still, sides with her if there is a conflict betweenher and Musharraf.
10. The US, which is disillusioned with Musharraf, but does not show it outwardly, would also prefer a denouement in which Musharraf ispushed out by a popularly elected Prime Minister than by it. It will, therefore, serve her agenda and that of the US, if she becomes the PrimeMinister with overwhelming voter support.If she does not get an absolute majority, she would not mind being a slightly less powerful PrimeMinister at the head of a coalition and bide her time. The JUI of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the Mulla of many seasons and many colours whocan find in the Holy Koran a justification for every opportunistic compromise he makes, may not be averse to supporting her despite Allah'soften proclaimed allergy to a woman Prime Minister as claimed by many Mullas, who claim to know the mind of Allah better than Allahhimself. The question is will the MQM and the PML (QA) agree to support her as the Prime Minister.
11. After discarding his uniform, Musharraf is a worried man. He knows his Pakistan and its Punjabis well. He knows that they fear andrespect a General only if he is in uniform. That was why he stuck to his uniform for so long as if it was his very life. When they shed theiruniform after retirement, all Pakistani Generals end up in the company of Mirza Aslam Beg, Jehangit Karamat, Hamid Gul, Assad Durrani,Javed Nasir, and others---- taken more seriously by the outside world and the US think-tanks than by their own people.
12. Musharraf will play every dirty trick he can think of in order to prevent her from getting an absolute majority. If she does despite all hismanipulations, don't be surprised if he decides to quit by projecting himself as a saviour of democracy giving way to a popularly-electedleader.If he is intelligent, that is what he should do. Swear her in as the popularly-elected Prime Minister and walk into the safe sanctuary ofretirement from politics as well.
13. Where does Mr.Nawaz Sharif figure in all this? That is for another day, another time. (2-10-07)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For TopicalStudies, Chennai.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )