A look into Pakistan's political future

INTERVIEW - Asia Times, January 4, 2007
A look into Pakistan's political future
Hassan Abbas

Hassan Abbas [1], a research fellow at the Belfer Center's Project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program, Harvard University, and a former Pakistani government official who served in the administrations of prime minister Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf, shares his thoughts with Kaveh Afrasiabi on how the general elections on February 18 will pan out.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: With the parliamentary elections now postponed to February, who are the likely winners and losers?

Hassan Abbas: In free and fair elections, at the national level (272 direct seats), the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) [of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto] will win [a majority of seats] - around 140 or so and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of Nawaz Sharif will get the second highest number of seats, around 50-60. The PML-Q [king's party aligned with President Pervez Musharraf] will manage some seats in Punjab province - 25 at the most - but overall will be routed. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam of Fazlur Rehman, the Awami National Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and independents will share the remaining seats. Independents will also play an important role in forming a government, but the PPP and the PML of Nawaz will be the main players.

If the PML-Q gets more than 25 seats, then it will be a clear sign that the elections are rigged. In the provinces, Punjab will see the PML-N and secondly the PPP in a winning position, Northwest Frontier Province apparently will slip out of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [six-party religious alliance] and ANP will be an important player in the coalition government along with the PPP. The MMA will be strong opposition though; In Sindh, the PPP will sweep the election and the MQM will retain its control of the urban areas and probably the PPP and the MQM will form a coalition government. In Balochistan, it will be a mix of JUI, the PML of Nawaz and the PPP and a coalition of all these is likely.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Benazir Bhutto's void has highlighted the limitations of personality-based party politics in Pakistan and, yet, the succession of her son Bilawal confirms the absence of any "paradigm shift" and rather the continuation of politics as usual. Do you agree?

Hassan Abbas: The PPP is faced with a daunting task to remain united and this challenge will become acute after the election victory. A lot depends on Asif Zardari [Bhutto's husband], the new leader, as Bilawal Bhutto is too young and he will not be involved in the election process at all. Asif Zardari served a lot of time in jail in the past [12 out of the past 17 years] without being convicted - so there is sympathy for him in the PPP also. Secondly, he is a sharp political strategist and understands the political dynamics of the country quite well. In terms of "politics as usual" the major political forces have learnt a lot in the last few years and hopefully will not repeat past mistakes. Religious extremism and dictatorship has damaged the social fabric of Pakistan hugely and the political leadership will have to begin from the scratch.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Is it fair to conclude that despite the avalanche of criticisms of Musharraf in the wake of Bhutto's assassination, his hands in controlling the affairs of the country have been strengthened, particularly since the US is now hard-pressed to find suitable alternatives to him?

Hassan Abbas: Yes, it appears that Bush administration is supportive of him on the face of it, but within Pakistan, Musharraf is weakened by Benazir's death and the pro-judiciary movement. In the violent aftermath of the recent tragedy, it is likely that army will re-evaluate how far they can go with Musharraf. I am hearing that top level military leadership is weighing all options currently. I also feel that within the Washington DC power corridors, someone must be thinking about why Musharraf couldn't save Benazir or was he involved in the murder in some way. This is crucial because, after all, the US had played a role in bringing Benazir and Musharraf together and the US was the guarantor of the understanding in a way - so if Musharraf breached that contract or understanding than Bush administration must evaluate what it means for the future of US-Pakistan cooperation. People in Pakistan have already started blaming the Bush administration for being hands in glove with Musharraf in terms of what happened recently.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Assuming that Musharraf will step down and a new civil-military balance will be established in Pakistan in the near future, what changes in Pakistan's foreign policy can we expect in such a scenario?

Hassan Abbas: I think it is predictable that in such a scenario, Pakistan's relations with its neighbors will improve. That is what history tells us - Pakistan has not fought any wars when a civilian government was in place - accept in the case of Kargil confrontation with India [in 1999] when the army hierarchy acted on its own and didn't take the prime minister into its confidence till the very end. In my view a democratic transition will certainly lead to Pakistan's better relations with India, Afghanistan and Iran.

1. Hassan Abbas is a research fellow at the Belfer Center's Project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program, Harvard University....

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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