Politics of "Deal-Making": A Realistic Assessment

Politics of ‘deal-making’
By Kaiser Bengali: Dawn, August 3, 2007

THE reported Benazir Bhutto-Pervez Musharraf meeting in Abu Dhabi has proved to be a bombshell and unleashed a storm of feverish comments and speculations. The most common opinion among the opposition and sections of civil society is that the PPP chairperson has made a deal with a military dictator; the deal being defined – explicitly by many – as compromising principles and interests of the people and the country for the sake of personal political gains and power.

The PML-N is calling it a betrayal of the Charter of Democracy, signed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in May this year. The relevant clause in the Charter states: “We shall not join a military regime or any military sponsored government. No party shall solicit the support of [the] military to come into power or to dislodge a democratic government.” Their reference is apparently to the part that states that no party shall solicit the support of the military to come into power. The MMA too is attempting to use the opportunity to transfer the mantle of being the military’s B-team onto the PPP.

The import of the reported Abu Dhabi meeting requires that the still unfolding events be analysed somewhat dispassionately. Reports regarding negotiations have been confirmed by Benazir Bhutto herself. That part is, thus, no longer in dispute. What remains contentious, however, is whether negotiations should have been held at all. However, the charges against the PPP go further. There is the not-so-implicit inference that a deal has been struck and, more so, that the deal amounts to the PPP forming a government under General Musharraf.

To be fair to the PPP, however, there is no evidence that Benazir Bhutto is soliciting the support of the military to come into power. There are three stages to a successful deal – negotiations, agreement, power sharing – and there is no evidence beyond stage one. Rather, Benazir Bhutto has been consistent in her demand that General Musharraf will have to shed his uniform before being considered for reelection to the presidency. The charges of a betrayal of the Charter of Democracy, thus, do not hold. The charge of acquiring the B-team mantle is nonsensical.

In any case, MMA’s record of insidious collaboration with the military and military intelligence agencies, from the erstwhile East Pakistan days in 1971 to Afghanistan in the 1980s, is too blood-soaked to enable it to ever shed its notoriety as the military’s B-team.

However, assuming that a deal for power-sharing is under negotiation, General Musharraf is as much an accomplice as Benazir Bhutto; – unless it is assumed that the general remains all-powerful and the PPP has been weakened to a point where Benazir Bhutto is willing to accept a share in power under the tutelage of a military dictator. That is not the case; rather it is the other way round. General Musharraf is fatally wounded – politically – and is frantically trying to reach out to those who can salvage him.

In fact, if reports are correct, it is General Musharraf who – after continually heaping scorn on Benazir Bhutto for eight years – has had to eat his humble pie and call upon her at her home-in-exile in the UAE.

Two questions arise. The first question is: if General Musharraf is weak, why is he negotiating with Benazir Bhutto? After all, the military and its supporting ashraafia consider the PPP to be an internal enemy to their hegemonistic status within the country, as much as they consider India to be an external enemy in terms of the regional power equation. The answer perhaps lies in comparative political standing. PML-N does have a national stature; but, after the mass defections to PML-Q, it is now left with only a rump. Of course, General Musharraf’s exit can see most of the Q-Leaguers flocking back to their parent party.

However, the party will then be seen as a continuation of the king’s party and fail to command the kind of legitimacy that is now sorely needed. The MMA also has a national presence, but its retrogressive ideology is now passé. Other parties have a regional presence, while yet others can fit into a bus. The PPP is the largest political party with roots in all the provinces. It is the only party that commands the moral and political stature to salvage the country from the sorry state it has been reduced to. History is repeating itself.

The second question is: if the PPP is in a relatively strong position, then why has Benazir Bhutto chosen to dialogue with the wounded dictator? The answer, perhaps, lies in realpolitik and in the fact that she and her party colleagues have learnt some valuable lessons from history. All political and civil society segments are now agreed on the imperative of clipping the military’s political wings and sending it back to the barracks. The question is: how is this to be done? Given that the military carries weapons, one way is to launch an armed struggle.

This is an option that neither Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif would opt for. Primarily, they do not command the capacity for armed action. More pertinently, however, they and their parties do not possess the proclivity for violence. Thus, if the violence option is excluded and if peaceful transfer of power remains the only possibility, there will be a need to talk. The military cannot and will not make a unilateral decision to surrender power to the political parties and walk away. The transfer will have to be negotiated. That is what Benazir Bhutto is doing.

If Benazir Bhutto were to accept becoming prime minister, or even agree to nominate someone for the position, a la Mohammed Khan Junejo, Zafarrullah Jamali or Shaukat Aziz, answerable to a military-president rather than to Parliament, it would certainly be tantamount to a ‘deal’. It would also be deplorable and amount to erasing the gains from decades of struggle for political rights by the people of the country and by the members and supporters of her own party. It would also entrench the military in the corridors of power for perhaps another quarter of a century.

Fortunately, that is not likely to happen. Benazir Bhutto does not need to scrape power crumbs from the hands of a military dictator. She has endured the heavy personal costs of political struggle for too long. She is heading the largest political party in the country that has sustained the continuous onslaught of the establishment for about three decades. She commands the confidence that her party can ascend to power on the strength of a mandate from the people.

Benazir Bhutto and her associates also appear to have learnt lessons from history. The uncompromising struggle against Ayub Khan in 1968 and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 failed to bring about a democratic change of government. Ayub Khan was followed by General Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by General Ziaul Haq. Both the military regimes caused enormous damage to the country and to the lives of the people. General Yahya Khan dismembered the country and General Ziaul Haq fragmented the political fabric of society.

General Musharraf has created civil war-like conditions, with insurgencies in Balochistan and FATA, attempts to enforce – by violence – Taliban-style religious norms and suicide bombings in the heart of the federal capital. The seriousness of the internal crisis facing the country demands a consensual approach among the major parties at least. Clearly, this is not the case, with the PPP and other opposition parties adopting diametrically opposite strategies.

The All Pakistan Democratic Movement (APDM) appears to be a reincarnation of the PNA of 1977. There were hard-line elements within the PNA who were opposed to any negotiated settlement with the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and forced an uncompromising stand. The result was a coup. A similar uncompromising struggle, being advocated by the constituent parties of the Nawaz Sharif-Qazi Husain Ahmed-led APDM, carries the danger of yet another military takeover and postponement of a democratic transition for, perhaps, another decade.

Benazir Bhutto appears to have taken cognizance of the fact that pushing General Musharraf to the wall is likely to provoke a coup and she is, apparently, trying to avert such an eventuality. She has assessed that General Musharraf is weak, has realised that repeating the failed tactics of 1968 and 1977 would be immature and irresponsible, and has decided to negotiate in order to ‘persuade’ the general to engage in an orderly transition.

MMA’s shrill outbursts against any possible entente between General Musharraf and the PPP can be understandable. The political space that they currently occupy is on account of the vacuum created by the forced absence of the PPP and PML-N. Their return to the political arena threatens to send the MMA back to the political periphery. Nawaz Sharif’s opposition is less understandable. After all, any concession that Benazir Bhutto can extract from General Musharraf – return to Pakistan, withdrawal of cases, withdrawal of the two-term limitation, etc. – will also benefit Nawaz Sharif.

On a more substantive note, the PML-N’s absolute refusal to talk to General Musharraf or his emissaries or to accommodate anyone from the PML-Q on account of their association with the military regime demonstrates their commitment to pristine principles and is admirable as such. However, there appears to be a contradiction in the sense that the PML-N has shown no compunction about forging an alliance with the MMA, which provided General Musharraf the constitutional crutches to continue in power – in uniform – and which continues to be a coalition partner with the general’s PML-Q in the provincial government in Balochistan.

The PPP’s insistence that the MMA has to first end its partnership with the PML-Q and quit the Balochistan government in order to be accepted as an opposition party appears to be more logical.

Pakistan has come across many crossroads in its history. It is across a crucial one now. The country will go through an orderly transition or jerk back to another period of military misrule. It is a choice between democratic resurgence and authoritarian decay. The major parties carry a heavy responsibility. The role that the smaller parties play in shaping the context of the transition will also be of crucial importance. Will the political leadership measure up?


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