VIEW: Excluding the military — Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
Daily Times, October 14, 2007
The Bhutto-Musharraf understanding and the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) may be questioned on a puritanical ethical basis but that is not the only consideration shaping politics in Pakistan. These inter-linked developments reflect two political dilemmas and a new approach to the country’s troubled politics.
The first dilemma is that despite the opposition’s criticism of the Army dominated political order led by President General Pervez Musharraf, the former has repeatedly failed to launch a massive street agitation to paralyse the government. The recently held presidential election showed that the opposition parties could not offer a united and coherent challenge to Musharraf’s re-election bid.
The opposition parties are more divided now than ever before during the Musharraf years. The PPP, led by Benazir Bhutto, de-linked itself from other opposition parties to facilitate the presidential election. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam (JUI-F), played a masterstroke in enabling Musharraf to get re-elected without facing the embarrassment of being elected from an incomplete electoral college. He manipulated the two opposition alliances dominated by Islamic parties in a manner such that neither his party members resigned nor the NWFP Assembly was dissolved before the presidential elections. Similarly, his party men made sure that the Balochistan government continued to function, offering further assistance to Musharraf’s re-election.
The second dilemma pertains to the political problems of Musharraf. Despite being successful in staying on top of the political edifice for 8 years, he continues to face a serious crisis of political legitimacy. Official circles are describing the unofficial victory in the presidential election as a major democratic triumph for Musharraf but every politically active person, including those in the official circles, know that it was a hollow victory and Musharraf will not be able to hold on to power without building a genuine political base.
The current understanding between the PPP and the Presidency can be described as a new approach to address the on-going political stalemate and uncertainty. On the part of Bhutto, it is an attempt to carve out some space for democratic politics and then work towards expanding this space. For Musharraf, it is an admission that the co-opted political leadership comprising the Pakistan Muslim League - Quaid (PMLQ) and its allies has not solved his crisis of legitimacy. He is now exploring new options to strengthen his political base and sustain himself in power.
Despite the PPP-Musharraf deal, they have divergent political agendas. The PPP wants to use the softened government attitude for engaging in popular mobilisation and winning the forthcoming election; which would in turn allow them to introduce changes in the system to neutralise Musharraf’s hitherto domineering role.
Musharraf’s new strategy is to use the improved relations with the PPP to extend his support base and cement his position. However, given their divergent agendas, the PPP and Musharraf are bound to clash soon after Bhutto’s return, especially in the run up to the general elections. Differences have already surfaced regarding the date of Bhutto’s return. Musharraf wants her return postponed till the Supreme Court decides the appeals against his election, fearing that she might cash in on the current uncertainty and, in case the Supreme Court gives an adverse ruling, her presence will be an additional constraint on Musharraf’s effort to salvage his political future.
The PPP approach differs from the political disposition of the Nawaz Sharif faction of the PML and the Jamaat-e Islami led by Qazi Hussain Ahmed. The latter is pursuing open confrontation with the Musharraf government. The policy of confrontation has improved Nawaz Sharif’s political standing in the Punjab where strong anti-Musharraf rhetoric is currently popular. Qazi’s support remains limited to a section of the religious circles, while others enjoy his tough talk but are not expected to support him in an electoral contest.
Confrontation with Musharraf cannot succeed until most, if not all, political parties join together to dislodge him from power. That is not likely to happen in the near future because a host of issues divides them: ideological differences; divergence in their approaches towards Pakistan’s role in the global war on terrorism; mutual distrust and personality clashes. Further, the government has often been successful in exploiting their internal differences to its advantage.
Political parties and their coalitions are strong in their criticism of Musharraf and the military’s role in politics and other non-professional fields. However, it is not clear if they really want to exclude the military altogether. This objective can be achieved only if political forces pose a coherent and stable challenge in the streets to the ruling generals.
Political actors, however, are not yet in a position to pose such a challenge. Many activists have come to the conclusion that they may never be in a position to effectively challenge the political role of the military. Therefore, they are willing either to cultivate the ruling generals or get cultivated by them in pursuit of their partisan agenda or to strengthen their position vis-à-vis their political adversaries.
In December 2003, the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) cooperated with Musharraf for the passage of the 17th constitutional amendment that endorsed most of the adjustments made unilaterally by him in 2002, and left a loophole in the text of the amendment enabling Musharraf to continue as the army chief. For the presidential election in October 2007, Maulana Fazlur Rehman facilitated Musharraf, practically dividing the major opposition alliances. Another party that has now decided to go for a solo flight with the military is the PPP.
Bhutto may be more confident than Maulana Fazlur Rahman because her arrangement enjoys the blessings of the United States and the United Kingdom, and this might get her a better power-sharing deal with Musharraf and the generals.
What will determine the ultimate outcome of Bhutto’s calculated risk is not the foreign guarantee but her performance in the general elections. This would also determine the terms of the arrangement between the PPP and the military.
The political parties that seek cooperation with the ruling generals justify their position on the ground that this would gradually reduce the role of the top commanders in the political domain, provide them with a safe exit and thus strengthen democracy. The underlying assumption is that military commanders are seeking an exit. Why should they exit when political forces are so divided that some are always willing to cooperate with them on one pretext or another? Musharraf has no plan to voluntarily quit power. He is seeking new political partners in order to reinvent his role in the changed political environment in Pakistan.
It seems that Pakistan is moving towards a new military-civil hybrid whose legitimacy will continue to be contested by some political and societal groups. It is not yet clear if the PPP will be part of this new hybrid after the general elections and on what terms. Would the PPP be in a position to change the political system from within? Or would it return to its traditional role as an adversary of the establishment and military dominated political order? The bottom line is that political uncertainty will persist for several months and it is difficult to predict the nature and direction of political change in Pakistan.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Also See: Musharraf in the Middle, Daily Times and Wall Street Journal