Friday, August 03, 2007

Dim Prospects for Mushararf-Bhutto Deal

This deal will not deliver
By Shafqat Mahmood: The News, August 3, 2007

The writer is a former member of parliament and a freelance columnist based in Lahore

The first reaction to a deal between Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf is a mixture of disbelief and outrage and it cuts across various fault lines. There are those who hate Musharraf and cannot believe that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's daughter would throw a lifeline to a sinking military dictator. She is supposed to represents pro democracy/anti military forces, they say plaintively. Why is she sabotaging all those people who struggled valiantly since March for judicial independence, democracy and the rule of law?

Then, there is the other side: people who hate politicians and believe that Musharraf is the best thing that happened to this country. Not only do they eulogise his eight years in office, they believe that he is the only person who has the potential to take this nation forward and introduce something they grandly describe as haqooq ul ibad. For them too this is a betrayal. How could Musharraf agree to share power with people who are known looters and plunderers they ask?

Sitting astride these opinions are people who have no great love for either Benazir Bhutto or Musharraf. For them there is only one serious contradiction in this country and that is between 'liberal' ideals and extremism. I have put liberal in inverted commas because there is no consensus on what liberalism stands for. For many it is nothing more than a culture of modernity akin to western social and cultural practices. Seen in this context it becomes a lifestyle issue and the extremists are perceived as enemies because they threaten it.

It is interesting that for this liberal faction other liberal ideals of due process and rule of law take a back seat when it comes to fighting extremism. They covertly and in some cases some openly advocate tough military measures to suppress it even if it involves widespread killing. Their worldview seems closer to George Bush and Dick Cheney than John Stuart Mill but what of it. This is liberalism of the twenty-first century.

This category of liberals also believes that military strength married with popular support is the only mix that can rid this country of extremism. Thus, Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf getting together is a good thing for them. They are not particularly concerned that this could mean a set back for democracy or that in this partnership the military will always have an upper hand. They only want the PPP to provide a broader fig leaf to cover dictatorship's naked power as it is directed against extremists.

The two protagonists actually cutting the deal couldn't care less for any of these opinions. Musharraf has only one interest. He wants a smooth and as far as possible a credible transition to another five years in power. Once this end is achieved, he will be ready to tackle whatever troubles this cohabitation brings. The name of the game for him is not a stable future arrangement although it would be desirable if it comes about on his terms. What he really wants is to get through the election hurdle and have some legitimacy while doing it. This he hopes the PPP will provide.

For Benazir Bhutto, this deal is not just a lessening of pressure as far as cases are concerned or a re-entry into the corridors of power although both issues are important. She genuinely believes that if the party is dealt out of the power game for another five years, it will disintegrate. The example of her party men ditching her after 2002 elections is sobering reminder to her of how cruel the game of politics can be.

She also believes that coming into power is always through an arrangement and not through popular will. She forced herself into power in 1988 but only after the Americans helped and she agreed to General Beg's terms. She was kept out in 1990 even though her voting percentage was more or less the same. She came into power in 1993 only after army acquiesced to it and was forced out in 1996 when the army refused to support her. She therefore thinks that only an arrangement or a deal will get her back into power.

An important part of this equation is the attitude of the Americans. They have no great respect for Benazir Bhutto as is evidenced by the fact that in the last eleven years, since she was ousted from power, hardly any American official of consequence met her. But, now they are willing to give her another chance because they have a great steak in the future of General Musharraf.

The Americans believe that despite all his troubles Musharraf is still their best bet in Pakistan. The difference in their thinking compared to the past is that they now believe he needs to be strengthened by adding a doze of popular support to his dictatorship. It is in this context that Benazir Bhutto and the PPP have again become relevant. I wouldn't be surprised if Benazir gets a better reception in Washington this time than she has had in the recent past.

While all these deals and arrangements are being worked out what of the people? Do they matter at all? The situation on the ground is that Musharraf is an intensely hated figure. The extremists are of course his deadly enemies but his troubles do not end there. The entire liberal intelligentsia including lawyers, professionals, civil society activists, and the media only have a negative opinion of him. So do religiously inclined people of all persuasion. He is in the unique position where neither the left nor the right, neither the conservatives nor the liberals, except a miniscule faction, are standing with him.

Among the political forces he now has the overt support of the MQM and elements in the PML-Q. I say elements because most of the others would ditch him the moment he weakens. He also has the covert support of Benazir Bhutto and perhaps Maulana Fazalur Rehman but not of their party's rank and file. The PPP is going through a severe crisis with a majority of its second and third line leaders and workers deeply unhappy with what their leader is up to. The same can be said of the JUI-F. Fazalur Rehman may covertly support Musharraf but does his party?

Meanwhile those opposed to Musharraf are finding a resonance among the people. Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, Imran Khan, and even Qazi Hussain Ahmed are rising in stature because they refuse to accept Musharraf's dictatorial rule. The office bearers of the bar associations are also making headlines with their anti Musharraf stand. So, does a deal between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf brokered by the Americans and supported by a small faction of liberal intelligentsia mean anything to the people?

The only positive that I see in this deal is that Musharraf may be beguiled into allowing a free and fair election. If this happens, I am convinced that he and his supporters in the Q league and if the PPP joins them, will get an electoral thrashing they will remember for a long time.


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