Different paths to political change in Pakistan

VIEW: Different paths to political change —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
Daily times, September 2, 2007

Nawaz Sharif’s decision to return to Pakistan poses a major challenge to President General Pervez Musharraf’s game plan for getting himself re-elected in uniform from the present assemblies. It has also increased pressure on Benazir Bhutto to make up her mind at the earliest on its strategy of negotiations with Musharraf. The key question is what will the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) do if the Musharraf government does not allow Sharif to enter Pakistan, or street confrontation breaks out between the Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PMLN), and the government?

Sharif’s confrontation path is hazardous, but this option is in line with the anti-Musharraf mood of the politically active circles and civil society groups in Pakistan. These circles have gained confidence from the lawyers’ movement that they can bring about political change through collective action. As they favour liberal democracy, they will view Sharif’s return as another blow to centralised and authoritarian rule from the presidency. Sharif is expected to enjoy the support of the All-Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), which has superseded the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) after the PPP opted for negotiations with Musharraf. However, the disposition of Maulana Fazlur Rahman is not yet clear. He will wait and see if Sharif returns and launches a protest movement.

In a democratic political system, leadership and policy changes are brought through the vote and the ballot box. However, in authoritarian and semi- or non-democratic systems, political changes are often unpredictable. These are often triggered by the policy and management blunders of over-confident rulers.

Musharraf appeared very confident of his position and future political prospects in December 2006. However, in order to check the efforts of the Supreme Court to acquire an autonomous role for itself, Musharraf stepped beyond his powers to suspend the chief justice in March 2007 and filed a reference for his removal to the Supreme Judicial Council.

The two pictures of the chief justice’s encounter with the state apparatus that appeared in the press appalled politically active circles and contributed to the strengthening of the lawyers’ movement for the chief justice’s restoration. The first picture showed the chief justice sitting in the president’s camp office (army house) while the president was wearing the army chief’s uniform. Press reports indicated that the chief justice also encountered the prime minister and other senior generals who asked him to resign. The second picture showed how security personnel manhandled the chief justice, forcing him into a vehicle by pulling his hair. These images were viewed as the examples of how the army top brass treated the highest civilian institutions and officers.

Despite the restoration of the chief justice by the Supreme Court, Musharraf defends his decision to file a reference against the chief justice. In mid-August, he insisted in Lahore that there was nothing wrong with filing the reference. This was an ill-advised move that led political and societal forces to rise in defence of constitutionalism, independence of judiciary and democracy.

These political and societal forces will be a major obstacle to Musharraf’s effort to banish Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif from mainstream Pakistani politics. Reinvigorated public opinion will dissuade Bhutto from siding with the Musharraf government. The latter may soon realise the futility of the dialogue because the presidency is looking for support for political survival rather than a move towards civilian and democratic order as envisaged by the PPP.

If the three main political players, Musharraf, Bhutto and Sharif, do not reconcile their divergent approaches to the future direction of Pakistani politics and society, Pakistan may face a major internal political crisis that can cause a total or partial breakdown of the political order. Musharraf may have some advantage over Bhutto and Sharif because he controls the state apparatus, including the army. However, heavy reliance on the bureaucratic and army apparatus may not ensure a secure political future for Musharraf.

Musharraf wants to continue with centralised and army-dominated governance and political management in total disregard to changed political ground realities over the last six months. From Musharraf’s perspective, the on-going interaction with the PPP is neither for democratic transition nor for his diminished role in governance. It only aims at keeping the PPP away from other political parties on the presidential elections by dangling the offer of some concessions which may not be actually given until Musharraf is re-elected.

Further, Musharraf is under pressure from the ruling PMLQ leadership to not accommodate Bhutto for understandable reasons. His track record shows that he works with political leaders on his own terms. If he accepts all that Bhutto is reported to have asked for, Musharraf will become a lame-duck president.

The PPP is pursuing a non-confrontational policy towards the Musharraf regime, hoping that mutual accommodation will move Pakistan towards greater democracy and constitutionalism. Bhutto also hopes that American and British influence will ensure that Musharraf accommodates the PPP. Until now, there is no evidence to suggest that the Musharraf government has decided to make any concrete gestures towards the PPP by adopting the required constitutional and legal approaches. The government is expected to keep the dialogue alive in order to divide the opposition and keep Bhutto on the dialogue track until the presidential election process is complete.

Sharif is pursuing a hard line confrontational approach towards the Musharraf government. He said that Musharraf would not be acceptable even if he quits as the army chief. Given the mood of the politically active circles, his strident approach has contributed to building his image. In the absence of Bhutto, Sharif is expected to attract more people on his return to Pakistan.

It can be argued that Sharif and Bhutto are pursuing a similar political agenda but they diverge on their strategies. It is quite possible that the gap between their approaches is narrowed as the PPP realises that its dialogue strategy has outlived its relevance, and Sharif comes to the conclusion that confrontation needs to be moderated in view of international and domestic political realities.

Whether Sharif and Bhutto work separately or together, the Musharraf government faces an uphill challenge to sustain itself. The ruling PMLQ is showing signs of internal disharmony which are expected to increase when Sharif returns to Pakistan. This challenge will not diminish if the government does not allow Sharif to return or his political activities are restrained for one reason or another. Any effort to restrain Sharif will have a host of negative consequences for the government.

The government will face additional problems if the Supreme Court accepts the opposition’s petition and rules that Musharraf cannot contest the presidential elections. This will leave no constitutional option for Musharraf to stay in power beyond the current term.

Time is fast running out for the political status quo in Islamabad. The presidency and its affiliates need to recognise Pakistan’s changed political landscape. Unless they agree to work out a strategy with mainstream political parties for holding presidential and parliamentary elections, Pakistan will experience internal instability which might topple the Musharraf government or make it dysfunctional. The bureaucratic–military underpinnings of the Musharraf government and its political support base in the shape of the PMLQ-led ruling coalition are becoming unsustainable in the face of resurgent political forces and an independent judiciary.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

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