Sunday, July 29, 2007

Table for Two?

VIEW: Table for two? — Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
Daily Times, July 28, 2007

The reported meeting between Benazir Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf in Abu Dhabi on July 27 is the latest effort by the two leaders to cultivate a working relationship. Benazir Bhutto said in an interview given a week ago that her past dialogues with the presidency did not result in any understanding on the President’s re-election and her return to Pakistan. She maintained that such an understanding might no longer serve the interest of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), as the Supreme Court’s rejection of the presidential reference against the chief justice has made Musharraf’s credibility crisis more acute.

Despite this, it seems that Benazir Bhutto has not given up the idea of cultivating a political understanding with Pervez Musharraf. She has claimed to pursue the off-again, on-again interaction for the sake of achieving the twin objectives of guaranteeing fair and free elections and returning the military to the barracks. But in fact she has taken a dual-track approach. While interacting with Pervez Musharraf she continues to work with opposition political parties to mount pressure on the government to open up the political system. It is a delicate balancing act — engagement with the presidency without endorsing its policies, as well as cooperation with opposition parties but holding back on street agitation against the government. Benazir also wants to maintain a discreet distance from the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), which overplays the Islamic card and has the reputation of supporting the Taliban and other militant Islamic groups.

Contact between Benazir Bhutto and the presidency was initiated in 2004. It was encouraged by Pakistani and foreign friends who wanted to see a working relationship between the two for the sake of the future of Pakistani politics and for addressing the democracy deficit. They came close to an understanding in April 2005 but a section of the presidency’s army/intelligence affiliates and the top leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) succeeded getting the process stalled. The PML leadership, especially the chief ministers of the Punjab and Sindh, continue to oppose the deal.

The domestic situation has changed so dramatically during the last couple of months that the potential deal has become irrelevant. Four recent developments have limited Pervez Musharraf’s political options and raised serious doubts about the ability of the PPP-Presidency deal to secure the president another term or enable Benazir Bhutto to get rid of the pending court cases and facilitate her party’s ascendancy to power.

First, the presidential reference against the chief justice of the Supreme Court can be described as President Musharraf’s and his affiliates’ self-inflicted wound. The resulting protests helped to restore civil society’s self-confidence as harbinger of political change through collective action.

This trend was reinforced by a second development: the dismissal of the presidential reference by the full bench of the Supreme Court. This has eroded whatever was left of the moral basis of the authority of the Musharraf government. The opposition is now expected to challenge in the Supreme Court Pervez Musharraf’s candidature for a second term when he formally files his nomination papers.

Some federal ministers and others close to the seat of power tried to save face by declaring that the government would honour the judgment and that a complex problem has been resolved amicably. It is doubtful if the government had any option other than accepting the judgment. After facing a virtual revolt from lawyers, societal groups and political parties, the presidency was no longer in a position to make any counter move against the Supreme Court.

The government’s problems have been exacerbated by the Red Mosque episode. It has alienated Islamic groups across the spectrum — from pressure groups to political parties to militant cadres. They have exploited with remarkable success the widespread popular perception that the government resorted to excessive force to overcome resistance from within the mosque’s precincts. The protest and violence by militant Islamic cadre on the re-opening of the Red Mosque on July 27 showed that they mean to continue their confrontation with the government, ostensibly to deter it from taking similar action against other militant groups.

The fourth major development is the recent spate of suicide attacks and stepped-up violence by militant Islamic groups in the tribal areas, NWFP and elsewhere. These attacks could not be launched in the immediate aftermath of the Red Mosque incident unless the militant groups were already operational and had a strong cadre. This exposes the hollowness of government claims of controlling militancy in and around the tribal areas. The groups are not merely entrenched in the tribal areas but have also developed the capacity to launch suicide attacks in other parts of Pakistan, including Islamabad.

These developments have undermined the government’s credibility to such an extent that any political understanding with the PPP is not likely to rescue it. The situation is expected to become more precarious for Pervez Musharraf if he decides to get himself re-elected in uniform from the existing assemblies. He needs to work towards an honourable exit rather than staying on in power by seeking an alliance with the PPP or by other means.

Similarly, Benazir Bhutto and the PPP cannot salvage themselves through a unilateral arrangement with the presidency. The PPP-presidency understanding may give some relief to Benazir Bhutto from her court cases, but it does not serve the PPP’s long-term political interest. The time for an agreement is long gone and the PPP must return to the people and seek power through them.

Further, Benazir Bhutto’s agenda for excluding the military from politics cannot be facilitated by an understanding with Pervez Musharraf. The military’s corporate interests and the top commanders’ stakes in governance have increased so much they may not voluntarily return to their professional domain.

The answers to the following two questions are likely to influence the military’s political profile in the post-Musharraf period.

Can Pakistan’s political actors work in harmony and respect the constitution in letter and spirit if the PPP comes to power through a backdoor deal? Other political parties can then be expected to return to the old tactics of leaving no stone unturned to dislodge the political rival from power. One of the options available to them is to cultivate the top brass of the army to dislodge the civilian government.

Second, will the challenges of religious extremism and violence, as well as external security pressures, restrict the policy options of any civilian government? Military cooperation will be needed to address these challenges. Therefore, the civil government will have to maintain cordial relations with the top commanders and give weight to their professional opinion on internal and external security challenges.

The PPP’s will not see its political agenda materialise by coming to solo arrangements with Pervez Musharraf. It needs to work with other political forces for achieving the twin objectives of Pervez Musharraf’s exit and Pakistan’s transition to a more participatory and pluralist political system. This will mark the beginning of efforts to address more complex issues like the democracy deficit, extremist terror and imbalanced civil-military relations.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

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