The Pakistan conundrum

While Pakistan government, judiciary and military worry about a new coup, politicians are getting ready for elections.

Published: 27th January 2012 12:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:23 PM   |  A+A-


Pakistan seems like a man just woken up from a deep sleep by two burglars, a house fire and a road accident just below his window, all at the same time. If the air of bewildered dishevelment is anything to go by, things seem to be getting a bit complicated and fraught.

For once, however, it’s not the fear of a military coup, although it is indirectly involved through what is called memogate, a memorandum that the civilian government allegedly sent to Washington seeking protection from the army.Memogate has the ruling establishment at each other’s throats, with the military especially worked up by the May 2011 missive that allegedly asked the US government — in the wake of the Osama bin Laden affair — to rein in Rawalpindi (Army HQ) and then help the civilians take control over the uniforms.

At the same time, a rejuvenated Pakistan Supreme Court has also taken notice and opened a broader inquiry into the origins, credibility and purpose of the memo.

The military, the permanent and real power centre, has made its displeasure plain, but has not hinted at a takeover, perhaps because of its own relative unpopularity at present. But there’s been an important casualty in the shape of Husain Haqqani, the ambassador to Washington, who has resigned. As yet, however, there’s no clarity on the matter because Mansoor Ijaz, the Pakistani-American  businessman who first leaked the story about the memorandum sent to Admiral Mullen, then chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, seems coy about testifying in court.

On January 25 he said through his lawyer that he was missing his date in court because he feared for his safety if he told his story. As memogate descends into a sort of farce, the uncertainties continue to multiply, not least because the term of this parliament is close to completion and elections are due by the middle of the year.

That introduces a new dynamic into the situation because the various political parties have started making their calculations and certain new and hopeful entrants begin to get talkative and assertive. The most notable of them is retired General Pervez Musharraf, former chief martial law administrator, former president and coup leader, who has been living abroad in self-imposed exile, out of the Pakistani public’s eye. That is perhaps his one shrewd move in a long time because the last years of his administration were a combination of the comical and sinister, with the murder of Benazir Bhutto the lowest point.

His regime left a trail of broken promises and outright betrayals, especially on a return to elected government, all of which the General obviously expects people to have forgotten because he’s thrown his hat into the electoral ring. That an unelected dictator (apart from the rigged polls) should aspire, and what’s more, hope, to return through the ballot box is one of the ironies of our times. It’s possible that he thinks the voter will give him a hearing even though he can’t hold a gun to his head anymore, but he’ll have to give up televised interactions from Dubai and meet the real people if he’s serious.

The other notable new name is Imran Khan, former cricketer extraordinary and English media darling. His Tehreek-i-Insaaf party has been around for some time, but until recently it was the butt of polite jokes in ruling circles. As Pakistan’s cricket captain and predatory fast bowler he was one of his country’s greatest inspirations, but he inspired less confidence as a political leader. Then came the monster rally in Karachi last month (about 1,5 lakh-strong, reports said) where the crowds hung on his every word rapturously. It was the sort of public anointment that has got the ruling class sitting up and taking uneasy notice, while the media is all over him.

There can be no questions about his ambitions or his abilities, but there must be many about his party’s reach. How can he possibly match the older, far stronger Pakistan People’s Party or the machine of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N)? The simple answer is he can’t. But if the force is with him, as has happened in elections elsewhere, there’s no saying what might happen. That’s why the other politicians eye him warily.

As for the usual suspects, both the PPP and the PML(N) have damaged themselves with their conduct in the last few years. President Asif Ali Zardari, also known as Mr Ten Percent, has become a liability for his party, especially after the Supreme Court scrapped the amnesty in old graft cases negotiated with the military government under the National Reconciliation Commission. Still, they have few rivals when it comes to organisation and cash, and this is the sort of thing that swings the result in a tight race.

The only problem is that a victory may not mean much if you’re convicted for corruption afterwards. The one truly unknown quantity in the coming elections is the Taliban factor. In the 2007 elections they got no traction in any state and in fact were soundly defeated even in places like the NorthWest Frontier Province, which was won by the avowedly secular National Awami Party. Things have changed since then, with the Taliban making inroads even into Punjab, but it isn’t quite clear what kind of effect they will have on the elections.

There’s no doubt, however, that they will have an influence, whether or not they directly contest, given their penchant and capacity for violence and their adherence to Wahhabi Islam. Nawaz Sharif and his allies have been known to fish in these waters, and there are any number of other pan-Islamic parties who would be only too glad to get into bed with the Taliban, a nightmare for those who remember the short-lived Emirate of Afghanistan.

Unlike that country, Pakistan has substantial numbers of Shia, Ahmadiya and other Islamic sects. All of them will be at the mercy of a purist strain which has shown none of that quality in its dealings so far. And this is before we ever get to talking about non-Muslims in Pakistan.

And what of the army, the elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge? Given the present lack of public enthusiasm for Khaki, the army is unlikely to make any overt move to influence the elections. But there’s little doubt that it will be watching closely, and every candidate and party will be looking over their shoulder as they campaign.

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