With just a month to go before the postponed general elections to the National and Provincial Assemblies of Pakistan, which are now to be held on February
18, 2008, the election campaign is once again picking up the momentum, which it had lost after the shocking assassination of
Mrs Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister, on December 27, 2007. Apparently rendered wiser by the shock and grief caused by her assassination, which was in part due to her habit of flouting security regulations, the political leaders have been more restrained in their campaigning, with their public exposure restrained to the minimum unavoidable. The consequences of another assassination by the jihadi terrorists would be incalculable for the future of the country and its political stability.
There are essentially five players in the arena--the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) now led in the field by Mr Asif Zardari, the widower of Benazir, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) headed by Mr.Nawaz Sharif, another former Prime Minister, the pro-Musharraf PML (Qaide Azam) led by Chaudhury Shujjat Hussain, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of Mr Altaf Hussain, who is remote-controlling from his exile in the UK, and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI) Pakistan headed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman. There are other smaller players such as the Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP), the breakaway faction of the PPP led by Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, another Pashtun leader etc.
Elections will also be held in the terrorism-affected tribal belt in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where, however, the political parties have no role to play. It is the tribal leaders, who determine the course and outcome of the elections. Interestingly, the leaders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, headed by Baitullah Mehsud, while stepping up their acts of terrorism in the tribal belt and outside, have not joined the other religious fundamentalist parties in boycotting the elections. They are, however, working for the defeat of Maulana Fazlur Rahman in the Dera Ismail Khan constituency of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), which has a large number of migrant labour from South Waziristan. They are angry with him for allegedly colluding with Musharraf for facilitating his re-election as the President.
Of the main players, the PPP has retained its voter base in the rural areas of Sindh and in the Seraiki areas of southern Punjab. Had the elections been held on January 8,2008, as originally scheduled, it might have benefitted from the wave of anger and sympathy following the assassination of Benazir. This wave is already showing signs of weakening and might weaken further as the election date approaches. The PPP will definitely do well in the elections, but may not do so well as to get an absolute majority on its own. It may have to depend on others for forming a stable government.
Even while maintaining its strident campaign against the government for allegedly failing to protect Benazir, it has taken care not to totally burn its bridges with President Pervez Musharraf. It has kept open the possibility of working with him after the elections in a US-blessed Troika arrangement with Musharraf continuing as the President, a leader of the PPP as the Prime Minister, and Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani as the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). Zardari has been saying till now that he would not be in the race for the post of Prime Minister and that the Prime Minister could be Maqdoom Amin Fahim, the Vice-Chairman of the Party, or any other candidate chosen by the Party Executive. Even if Zardari sticks to his commitment not to enter the race for the post of Prime Minister, he would be the de facto power behind the throne.
His statements and remarks after the assassination of Benazir indicate that he prefers continuing with the policy of Benazir of working with Musharraf-- with the US acting as the umpire in the relations of the PPP Prime Minister with Musharraf on the one side and Kiyani on the other. Despite the growing unhappiness in the US administration over the failure of Musharraf to deal effectively with the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Neo Taliban operating from the Pakistani territory, the US still has confidence in his ability to ensure the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and prevent their falling into the hands of the jihadi terrorists. It would, therefore, like Musharraf to continue as the President without any dilution in his powers, but working in tandem with an elected Prime Minister and not at cross-purposes with him.
Even in the PPP there is a realisation (not openly expressed) that the Army should continue to play the leadership role in the fight against terrorism and that the continuance of Musharraf as the President would facilitate this objective. It is also receptive to the US perception that at a time when the terrorists seem determined to destabilise Pakistan, it would be unwise and short-sighted to rock the boat for Musharraf.
It is, therefore, likely that while not making the position of Musharraf untenable by seeking to impeach him or re-opening the issue of his arbitrary exercise of power during the short period when he had imposed a State of Emergency and suspended the operation of the Constitution, it would insist on guarantees to prevent such an arbitrary exercise of power by Musharraf in future. When Benazir was alive, she had already raised the question of doing away with the power of the President to dismiss the elected Prime Minister. This could be its minimum condition for co-operation with Musharraf after the elections.
The PML (N) of Nawaz Sharif and the PML (QA) of Shujjat Hussain are expected to have equal chances in Central and Northern Punjab and in some pockets of the NWFP. Nawaz Sharif continues to be as erratic as ever in his political judgement. He has denied himself of any flexibility in his political manoeuvring by taking up a strong line against Musharraf, by insisting on the re-instatement of the judges sacked by Musharraf after imposing the Emergency, by wanting to have Musharraf impeached and by continuing to display a lack of understanding for the US concerns over the dangers of the spreading terrorism in Pakistani territory and its likely threat to international peace and security.
So long as his conviction by an Anti-Terrorism court of Karachi in 2000 continues, there is no question of his becoming the Prime Minister again. It would be in the interest of his party to build up Mr Shahbaz Sharif, his younger brother, who has friends among senior Army officers and who is liked by the US too, as the future candidate for the post of Prime Minister should the circumstances after the elections favour the PML (N). But Nawaz seems to be reluctant to give way to his younger brother. This comes in the way of any reconciliation between Musharraf and the Army on the one side and the PML (N) on the other.
The role of the PML (QA), which is essentially an opportunistic grouping of the Punjabi loyalists of the late Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf, will remain diminished, but in the event of the PPP not doing as well as expected despite the so-called sympathy wave, it could have a greater room for political manoeuvrability. The MQM of Altaf Hussain retains its support base in the urban areas of Sindh and it will use its power and influence in the urban areas to prevent any weakening of the position of Musharraf. The JUI will hardly have any role after the elections.
How effectively Musharraf and the new Prime Minister are able to deal with terrorism will depend upon not only, who comes to power in Islamabad, but also on who comes to power in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP. The five years of governance of the NWFP by a Musharraf-encouraged religious coalition called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) weakened the fight against terrorism and facilitated the spread of terrorism from the FATA to the NWFP. Now that the other religious parties, which formed part of the MMA, are boycotting the elections, the possibility of pro-Al Qaeda fundamentalist elements re-capturing power in Peshawar is small. The coming into power in the NWFP of a new coalition more sincere in its commitment to fight against terrorism, should be of help to the new government in Islamabad.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and,presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.