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Pakistan’s hour of reckoning

A fractured mandate appears on the cards even as a hawk-like Army watches from the wings in a politically volatile country that goes to polls on May 11.

Published: 07th April 2013 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th April 2013 10:27 AM   |  A+A-

One Sunday in February, Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani summoned a bunch of journalists to Rawalpindi, the seat of the Army, to share some of his thoughts on the state of Pakistani politics. The general elections were less than four months away. A civilian government was about to conclude a record uninterrupted term in office, free from Pakistan’s unending cycle of military coups. It was not without hiccups, however. The period was marked by distinct uneasiness between the civilian government and the military, especially over who got to control the ISI. The Army won that round. Another battle was between the judiciary and the civilian government. That ended in a stalemate but led to the sacking of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.  In the last five years, Pakistan’s economy has been in free fall characterised by chronic 18 hour power shortages, intermittent floods, upsurge in terrorism and sectarian violence; according to one count, in the first three months of this year alone there were 144 blasts in which 478 people were killed and a little less than a thousand injured. That is more than one blast a day.

In a rambling interaction that stretched over four hours, including a sumptuous lunch, General Kayani provided glimmers of insight into the Army’s thinking. Speaking in a low tone, smoking incessantly, he identified what he saw were problem areas.  Many of his thoughts seemed half formed, teasing, curling around like question marks in the cloud of cigarette smoke. Yet it was unmistakable, what Kayani was doing. No one in the audience was left in any doubt that General Kayani was giving a read out of a long list of civilian failures, from the economy to the civilian government’s handling of terrorism and many things in between. According to Shaheen Sehbai, writing in The News, Kayani at one point said, “All internal matters have to be handled by the civilians as the ISI has to look after external intelligence threats and the Army has to secure borders.” Then, “Where are the civilian agencies?” he asked pointedly. He was polite about it, but he made no attempt to conceal his disdain, an irritation bordering on annoyance. The government and politicians had failed, had messed things up. They had failed miserably in Swat and Balochistan, for instance, even though the Army had made it convenient for a credible civilian intervention. Anybody listening to the general would have found him reasonable and would have nodded understandingly.

The General, ranked the 28th most influential in the world by Forbes last December, was at pains to point out that at no stage had he intervened, although it was surmisable to the gathered audience that the temptation may have been as great as it had been constant. And now there were only a few months left before his extension drew to an end in November. After that he would be gone. Implication: the Army was the best custodian of national interests, the politicians would come and go, continuing to muck it up, but the Army would be there, watching over Pakistan. Another timely reminder that it is the Army that keeps Pakistan together and might need to intervene now and again in order to prove it?

Then Kayani, 60, narrated an anecdote that gave away his thoughts on the elections.  He told those he had gathered around him from the media how he gave the Election Commission of Pakistan a briefing. For over two hours he had briefed the 85 year-old Chief Election Commissioner, Justice (Retd) Fakhruddin G Ibrahim, and the others. At the end of the briefing, the Chief Election Commissioner did not recognise the Chief of Army Staff who had been talking to him. “Yes, I am General Kayani”, Kayani had to tell the ageing Chief Election Commissioner. The subtext: How could a person with such agility supervise the mammoth election exercise? Could Fakhru Bhai be expected to stay on top of the situation and deliver?Even the caretaker Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso was only a year younger than the Chief Election Commissioner. How could a structure, so weak at the top, be expected to shoulder this responsibility? After all, weren’t the other four members of the Election Commission of Pakistan also nominated by the politicians and therefore, how impartial could they be? What would result from all this?

Naturally, the interaction found its way into the press and the television channels and much was read into the implications as well. Analysts such as Ayesha Siddiqa, whose seminal work, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, thinks what Kayani was doing was to “create doubts in the minds of ordinary citizens regarding the efficacy of democracy as a system.” Writing in Newsline she says: “Private meetings of the COAS with journalists are indicative of the fact that an Army chief in Pakistan is never in the mood to take a backseat and create space for the democratic process. Read the text between the lines: Kayani seems to be saying that the politicians are so inept that they cannot be given control of national security, policy making or other critical issues. And that the generals are the ones with the vision and the sagacity to run the country. This clearly amounts to intervention and setting the tone for future politics.”

The big question before the elections a month away now on May 11 is: Has democracy stabilised in Pakistan? Certainly more and more democratic actors are going to be participating, including Imran Khan aka Taliban Khan who boycotted the 2008 elections; then there is the dictator-turned- democrat the former General Musharraf, the one who cherry-picked Kayani for the job in some six years ago in 2007.  The political structures in Pakistan have changed since Musharraf managed to centralise decision-making, the organisations shifting outwards from Islamabad, towards the provinces, becoming more diffuse. Voices outside the established political structures and hierarchies are making themselves heard and the system is reaction, as witness the tumult over the brief return of Tahir ul-Qadri from Canada, an indication that the electorate is restive, itching for change.

Musharraf’s entry into the political battle-ground is a little intriguing.  Conventional wisdom says that the dice is loaded against him. Not many in Pakistan would call him a shoo-in in the elections. He is likely to be bogged down in litigations; a court has already banned him from leaving the country. His party the All Pakistan Muslim League was formed barely three years ago. He has landed late in Pakistan, less than a month and a half ahead of the elections. He doesn’t have too many allies. His candidates are not likely to be heavyweights. His older cronies have in the meanwhile migrated to greener pastures in other parties. Is he punching above his class?  As Mariana Baabar, a senior journalist, puts it, “Musharraf is hated very much all over Pakistan, by civil society, by the military, by the Taliban. This is what Benazir would call divine justice. He is a hounded man. He will not know what will hit him tomorrow. No other Pakistani has made as many enemies as Musharraf has. Except possibly Zia ul Haq.”

Taliban, who have tried twice before to kill him, has vowed to get him this time. Shahzain Bugti, the grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti, the Baloch leader who was killed in August 2006, has announced a $ 10 million reward for Musharraf’s head.  Musharraf plans to maximise his chances of winning by contesting from three constituencies. One, supported by the Muttahida Quami Movement in Karachi and another in Chitral.

Anees Jilani, a senior lawyer practising in Pakistan Supreme Court is also dismissive of Musharraf. Asked if Musharraf had a game plan and did he matter anymore, Jilani said, quite simply, “I think Musharraf is history. He is contesting from three constituencies and I don’t see him winning from any of them. His best bet may be Chitral simply because he approved construction of a tunnel linking the valley with the rest of the country during the winter season. He made a mistake leaving the country and living in exile and is now paying the price for it. He is now totally irrelevant.”

He might end up with a couple of seats in Pakistan’s complicated electoral chequerboard where elections to both the regional and national assemblies will occur simultaneously. About 84.36 million people, out of a population of 170 million will vote. The National Assembly comprises 342 members of which 272 constituencies are elected by a first-past-the-post system while another 60 women and 10 minority members are elected by proportional representation.

The story of Imran Khan’s metamorphosis into a politician from a playboy and a sportsman and a cancer hospital advocate has been a long one. His party Pakitan Tehreek I Insaaf was formed 15 years ago and has so far succeeded in winning just one National Assembly seat. For the last year, he has drawn big crowds, youth of Pakistan. Imran keeps talking about bringing about a tsunami in Pakistani politics.  About half of Pakistan’s electorate has not yet turned 35. Are all of them behind him and will he get them to vote for him?

Amir Mir, Deputy Editor of The News International which comes out from Lahore, the political capital of the country, points out to this reporter that Imran has no presence either in Sindh or Balochistan. He might play the role of a spoiler to Nawaz Sharif in Punjab. Day in and day out Imran rubbishes Nawaz Sharif and Zardari. What would happen if Imran ultimately joins either?

Mariaana Baabar too echoes Amir’s views that Imran will be a spoiler, affecting Nawaz in Punjab. “Seat adjustments” will be a factor in the final outcome. She explains seat adjustment as follows: “Supposing the PPP has put up a candidate in a particular seat and if neither Imran nor Jamaat e Islami have a good candidate they will gang up and together try to defeat Nawaz’s candidate.”

Asked how much she expected Imran to win she says that “Imran Khan’s people are themselves saying 30 to 40 right now, but it is fluid. Alliances are still being made.” Decidedly short of a tsunami. Says Anees, “There is no doubt that most of the educated class looks towards Imran and desires to give him a chance. However, I do not see him as the future PM, although he may join the ruling coalition.”

Predicting elections in Pakistan is a mug’s game.  Not least with the military constantly trying to undermine the civilian administration. “Anything can happen,” recalled an RAW officer posted in Pakistan.

Once in Karachi during elections, he remembers going to sleep when a popular candidate was leading by 3,000 votes with only 7000 votes left to be counted. “In the morning virtually every uncounted vote went to the other side, thought to be military’s man.”

As Colin Cookman, a Policy Analyst for National Security at American Progress points out in his paper, Previewing Pakistan’s 2013 elections, “the country’s military and intelligence services have an acknowledged history of assembling political coalitions or otherwise minor parties to challenge sitting civilian government by proxy.” There is also the spectre of violence. Benazir Bhutto was killed during a rally. Rana Banerji, a long-time Pakistan watcher who retired as Special Secretary in the RAW, says, “The possibility of violence between now and May 11 is quite high. One set of violent activities targeted at people whom Taliban has said they will target in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.” He points out that they may not attack right of centre candidates, with exceptions like Musharraf.

However, Anees Jilani feels that the elections will throw up another coalition government this time led by the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, who was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia by Musharraf. He thinks “PML-N will perform well in the Punjab and in certain areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  The PPP will get a beating throughout and will lose immense votes in the interior of Sindh but may still manage to secure some seats from Sindh interior. It will lose out in the rest of the country. I also do not see a comeback of the PPP in our lifetime after these elections and it is going to be a downslide. I think the future contests will now be between PTI of Imran Khan and PML-N, both right of centre parties.” What will Pakistan look like after the elections? Three personalities who have shaped events may no longer be at the helm. The first is General Kayani, if he doesn’t seek an extension. Already those below him are restless.

The second is Justice Iftekhar Choudhury, the Chief Justice who will retire a month after Kayani, in December. The third is Asif Ali Zardari who has managed to remain president for five years. Justice Choudhury has carved out an undisputed space for the Supreme Court. Will the Pakistan Supreme Court be the same after he retires?

Says Anees, “I think gradually the SC will slide to the old style which supports my thesis that personalities matter in politics. However, due to certain rulings of the SC, it would be difficult for an Army takeover in the future. The current CJ is pro-active and takes lots of suo moto notices in matters of public interest. Future Supreme Court in this respect will have to be judged on this score.”

What of Kayani’s successors? Says Rana Banerji, “Basically Kayani and his peer generals realise that Army can only rule from behind the scenes and cannot come back into direct power and nor would it be convenient to do so. Civil society does not want Army to come back in.” Basically no more coups for now. But has democracy been strengthened? It is a question for which a more categorical answer will be available in 2018.

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