Some parties favour elections, political parties might not
Despite all the nice talk of ‘restoring democracy’ in Pakistan, the general elections of January 2008 were mostly about engineering a political outcome that would be acceptable to Gen Musharraf, tolerable to the more vocal sections of Pakistani civil society and amenable to carry out the United States’ agenda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Benazir Bhutto, who was killed yesterday, was by far the one candidate who could meet most of these requirements: needing work only in the acceptability to Musharraf bit. Given her general popularity, the thrust of the Pakistani military establishment’s political engineering effort was to ensure that her party didn’t win so many seats as to make her too powerful vis-à-vis Musharraf. It was in this context that she issued the rather undemocratic-sounding warning: that the elections results would be unacceptable to her if her party didn’t end up on top of the results tally.
With her assassination the ‘returning Pakistan to democracy’ project is suddenly confronted with the need to throw up another candidate, satisfying the three conditions are before, but with an additional constraint imposed by the January 8th election date.
Cancelling the elections is of course an option, and the leading political parties might even favour it. Bhutto’s PPP needs to find a leader who could benefit from the potential sympathy wave, but it’s not clear if a party organised around Bhutto’s personality can find one and regroup in time. Nawaz Sharif himself might now find himself the leading opposition figure, but his party will fear that a combination of the sympathy wave for the PPP and rigging by the Musharraf regime will severely affect its electoral results. Little wonder that it announced an immediate boycott. That’s a clear signal yet that it wants the elections postponed. The party that Musharraf created, Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), should be weighing its options: outside a few constituencies in Punjab, its provincial stronghold, it depends on rigging for seats. It stands to gain from Nawaz Sharif’s boycott, especially in Punjab. But it stands to lose from a pro-PPP sympathy wave. If its leadership prefers to err on the side of caution, the PML(Q) too would be in favour of delaying the elections.
Does this mean that elections will be postponed? Not quite. Because powerful quarters will want them to be held as scheduled. First, as President Bush signaled in his speech, the United States urged Pakistanis “to honor Benazir Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process”. Second, Musharraf himself might see this crisis as an opportunity to install a civilian government that is more to its liking. Civil society groups too would favour early elections.
So unless the post-assassination spasmodic violence spreads into mass unrest (in the Pakistani scale of things) elections will be held as scheduled. [If mass unrest ensues, it’s an entirely different story, and a topic for a separate post. Just remember Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s exit.]
Part 2: After Bhutto, who?
So who’ll replace Benazir Bhutto as the candidate that is on the right side of Musharraf, the United States and popular opinion?
No, not Nawaz Sharif. At least, not in time for the January 2008 elections. It would take an enormous amount of reconciliation to bridge the Sharif’s distance from Musharraf and the United States. Such a reconciliation is possible but unlikely in the given timeframe. For now, Nawaz Sharif will have to remain content with being the biggest political leader…in the opposition.
There are two front-runners, as of now, and one wild-card. The PML (Q)’s Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, former chief minister of Punjab province and Makhdoom Ameen Fahim, Benazir Bhutto’s deputy and caretaker leader of the PPP all these years, have the best shot at the post of prime minister. The wild-card, of course, is Aitzaz Ahsan, a member of the PPP, but too closely identified with the lawyer’s struggle for the restoration of the sacked chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Why Pervez Elahi and Ameen Fahim? Well, because they meet the three criteria better than anyone else. Pervez Elahi will perhaps be acceptable to the United States which needs a Plan B, but his close association with the Musharraf regime won’t endear him to Pakistanis outside the Punjab province. But since the election is about political engineering and not really about securing a popular mandate, Pervez Elahi comes out as a strong contender for the prime ministership. His stewardship of Punjab over the last few years will not harm his chances with the powerful commercial interests of Pakistan’s industrial heartland.
Ameen Fahim has two question marks between him and the prime ministership. Will the PPP survive and hand him the mantle of leadership? How much of the military establishment’s political engineering weaken the PPP’s seat tally? It is conceivable that the PPP under Ameen Fahim can ride to power on the back of a sympathy wave, like the Congress Party under P V Narasimha Rao in 1991 after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. But unlike in Narasimha Rao’s case, Pakistan’s election is unlikely to be free and fair.
Indeed, it is possible that the military establishment will rig the vote to ensure that the parliament is divided between these two formations—the PML(N) having decided to stay out—so that the Islamist parties, or the MQM can play kingmaker. Not unlike what was in place for the last few years.
Aitzaz Ahsan is the wild card. Technically he is a PPP leader, but his identification with former chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry makes him unpalatable to Musharraf, and at least so far, to the United States. But he has his supporters, has acquired a lot of popularity and shares the kind of outlook that made Benazir Bhutto popular with the United States. Ironically, to rise to power he will have to compromise with Musharraf—that means jettisoning the cause of the judiciary and the reason for his rise in public esteem.
All this, if elections are held. But as Ahmed Rashid writes, “If rioting and political mayhem worsen, if the opposition refuses to cooperate with Musharraf and the United States finally begins to distance itself from him, then the army may be forced to tell Musharraf to call it a day”. What happens then is an entirely different story.
Updates/Related Links: Washington Post reports that the US brokered her return to Pakistan—as if we didn’t know.