The Next Prime Minister: Amin Fahim Out?

As late as a few days ago, Amin Fahim was widely believed to be the People’s Party’s prime ministerial nominee.  His fate has since changed.  The potential candidate pool has grown.  There is a reported trust deficit between Fahim and party Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari.  The basis for this is unclear; Fahim is as loyal and complacent as it gets.

There are also indications that Zardari won’t run for a National Assembly seat in the by-elections and will play a Sonia Gandhi-type role (governing through proxy).  If that is the case, then Zardari would need a capable, but not wholly independent prime minister.

The alternatives to Fahim–Ahmed Mukhtar, Yousuf Raza Gilani, and Shah Mahmood Qureshi–are all from Punjab.  Zardari perhaps seeks a Punjabi prime minister to project his party’s reach beyond Sindh, but at the same time, a premier from one of the smaller provinces could also strengthen the federation.  However, a Zardari presidency could also do the trick.

Mukhtar defeated Shujaat Hussain in the latter’s hometown of Gujrat in the recent elections.   A correspondent for GEO also stated that Mukhtar, who was previously commerce minister, has good ties with the business community, which the People’s Party leadership values due to the current economic troubles.  Gilani is a former National Assembly speaker.  Qureshi is perhaps the most urbane and articulate candidate among the four.  Articulate and Cambridge-educated, he has the capacity to speak authoritatively for the party in both Urdu and English, which is necessary given Pakistan’s global challenges.

Breaking News: Suicide Bomb Blast in Swat at Funeral Procession

A deadly bomb blast, believed to be a suicide attack, hit a funeral procession this evening in Swat. The attack occurred at the funeral of Deputy Superintendent of Police Javed Iqbal, who was killed earlier in the day by militants. The bomber reportedly detonated himself during the gun salute.  GEO reports that over40 have been killed.

Sharif Not Biden’s Sher

Senator Joe Biden commented during yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Pakistan:

“One of the things that startled us the day after the election is the first comment by [Nawaz] Sharif…[It] was that he wanted to see the release of A.Q. Khan. That was the first official statement he made, to the best of our knowledge. Fortunately, he [Nawaz Sharif] did not win outright, but it reinforces your [Dick Lugar’s] point about the national hero status [of A.Q. Khan].”

Apparently Joe Biden wasn’t watching Nawaz on the campaign trail. The former prime minister said, just days before the election, that he’d consider nominating A.Q. Khan as president of Pakistan.

Biden also noted in the hearing that he found Asif Zardari to be clean and articulate.

What a pity. They got off to a great start (see above) and share the same propensity to let their tongues get ahead of their brains.

Bush Appoints Pakistani American as Special Envoy to OIC

After an eight month search, President George W. Bush has appointed Sada Cumber, a Karachi-born Pakistani American, as special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.  Cumber, who received his BA and MA from Karachi University, was chairman of an Austin, Texas-based technology firm till his appointment.  He has received a number of government appointments from Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, and is active in Ismaili Muslim and interfaith activities.

Radio Appearance: BBC Radio 5

Just finished a live interview on BBC Radio 5.  The segment was on the YouTube ban by the Pakistani government.  I’ll put up an audio clip once it’s available.

Partnerless in Pakistan

By Arif Rafiq

[Published in the Daily Star (Lebanon), Daily Times (Pakistan), and Guardian’s Comment is Free]

President George W Bush rightly called Pakistan’s recent national and provincial elections “a victory for [its] people”. But, even as he uttered those words, his administration was working behind the scenes to subvert the will of Pakistan’s people by trying to dictate the composition of their next coalition government and prop up the election’s biggest loser, President Pervez Musharraf. Bush is playing a dangerous game, risking the collapse of Pakistan’s political process for the sake of his own legacy.

Millions of Pakistanis delivered a clear message at the polls. Collectively, they voted against Musharraf and religious extremists, and in favor of democracy, the rule of law, and good governance.

Nationally, no single party received a majority, but the centrist, democratic opposition won more than 70% of the national assembly seats. The Musharraf-allied faction of the Muslim League party (PML-Q) came in third, polling only 15%, despite the assistance of surgical vote-rigging. Most of its senior leaders were defeated in their constituencies – including one who hadn’t lost an election in 26 years. The PML-Q, created in 1999 by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, is now political deadwood.

An alliance between the two largest parties, the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League faction (PML-N) is what the country needs and what most Pakistanis want. The PPP and PML-N have the numbers to form a unity government. They also realize that this is perhaps their last chance to “save” Pakistan.

Together with the pro-democracy army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, this coalition can address Pakistan’s most pressing challenges, including terrorism. With the addition of smaller parties and independents to the coalition, they can also impeach Musharraf and restore the judiciary, which he had deposed. This is unpalatable to the Bush administration, which has helped keep Musharraf in power, despite the fact that 75% of Pakistanis want him to resign.

The Bush administration finds the PML-N’s nationalism and antagonism to Musharraf particularly troublesome. Sharif has called for Pakistan’s foreign policy to be debated in parliament, but supports continued cooperation with the United States. His party also wants the sacked Supreme Court justices to be restored.

The US government, however, endorsed the justice’s illegal removal, seeing the court’s insistence on constitutional accountability for Musharraf as complicating its regional objectives. The court, for example, required Musharraf to present alleged terror suspects – some of whom were likely “rendered” to Pakistan by the CIA – detained for years without government acknowledgment.

Of course, a popular, democratically elected government and an independent judiciary in Islamabad complicate relations with the US. Democracy is intrinsically messy, but it won’t jeopardise Pakistan’s partnership in the war on terror. The Bush administration, however, has become used to dealing with one man and is increasingly impatient. In its final year, it would like to increase the odds of a Republican victory in November’s US presidential election. Toward this end, progress in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be highly valuable.

As a result, the Bush administration is aggressively interfering in coalition talks between Pakistan’s political parties. It wants to pair the PPP with the discredited PML-Q and isolate the PML-N. US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, for example, has held a joint meeting with senior Musharraf advisor, Tariq Aziz, and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower.

Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office also is reportedly playing an active role. Zardari, in a joint press conference with Sharif, refused to answer a question about whether there is pressure from the US to ally with Musharraf. But he and Sharif did agree “in principle” to form a government.

The Bush administration’s forceful manipulation of Pakistan’s political leadership is dangerous for both Pakistan and the US. Its favoured arrangement could divide the opposition, keep Musharraf ascendant, and provide continuity in the Pakistan army’s campaign against militants. But it would also likely de-legitimise the next government before it comes into power, rupture Pakistan’s largest political party, and create a nationalist backlash against the US.

The US needs to take a step back and let Pakistan’s political process proceed naturally. The end result might not be optimal, but if the Bush administration overplays its hand, it could find itself partnerless in Pakistan.

In cooperation with Project Syndicate, 2008.

Army Surgeon General Killed in Rawalpindi Suicide Blast

The cease fire is apparently over. Earlier today, a suicide bomber attacked the vehicle of Lt. Gen. Mushtaq Ahmad Baig, the surgeon general of the Pakistani Army, killing him and eight others–including five civilians. There is no reason to believe he was personally targeted by the bomber. Inter-Services Public Relations spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that the attacker, disguised as a beggar, was “just waiting for a senior army officer” and detonated himself at a traffic signal “when he saw a staff car with the signature of a senior officer.”

Lt. Gen. Baig headed the Army Medical Corps and likely lacked the security detail provisioned to officers of similar rank within the army’s mainstream. He was apparently traveling in a black Toyota Corolla with a Pakistan Army license plate (see left). Previous attacks on the military in Rawalpindi have focused on softer, more vulnerable targets, such as employee buses. As I have written earlier, the army needs to enact more comprehensive security measures. This is essential toward renewing morale within the institution and denying the militants tactical victories.

Testimonials from those who knew the late Lt. Gen Baig center on his humility, religious piety, and professional excellence as a physician.

Telegraph: Musharraf ‘will exit in days, not months’

The Sunday Telegraph quotes an unnamed “close confidante” of Pervez Musharraf as saying that Musharraf’s resignation could (not definitely, as its headline states) be imminent:

“He has already started discussing the exit strategy for himself…I think it is now just a matter of days and not months because he would like to make a graceful exit on a high.”

I would take this quote with a grain of salt. While its outlook is highly plausible, the statement could be designed to create fear among Western diplomats, who have been actively ‘lobbying’ Asif Zardari, and to a lesser extent Nawaz Sharif, to keep Musharraf on board. Amin Fahim, the People’s Party’s selected prime ministerial candidate, has told CNN of his party’s aversion to “rock the boat at this time” and said that he thinks “there’s no need at the moment” to impeach Musharraf. The pressure on Musharraf is not full-fledged.

A non-violent exit for Musharraf? Most likely. Graceful? Yes, if you think Nixon’s resignation was. On a high? No way. Musharraf needs to ask himself: Why after almost eight and a half years in power has he reversed roles with Mr. 10 Percent and Amir ul Mumineen (now Amir ul Wukalaa)? Why is it that he could very well be subletting Nawaz’s villa in Jeddah, while Sher Sahib has returned with both hairline and legitimacy restored?

The same official above also tells the Telegraph:

“[Musharraf] may have made many mistakes, but he genuinely tried to build the country and he doesn’t want to destroy it just for the sake of his personal office.”

Musharraf failed to recognize the necessity of constitutional constraints, political competition, and a free and active public discourse in curbing the weaknesses inherent in all political actors. And good intentions can only take one so far. In the end, an executive must be judged by actions–especially when given close to a decade to perform. The freak show that is Pakistan’s constitution, in its present form, will perhaps be Musharraf’s greatest legacy. His amendments and extra-constitutional acts demonstrated his utter failure as a politician and as a ruler who failed to become a leader.

Prior to last year, Musharraf was keen to make his case before the Pakistani people. Though he certainly wasn’t always right, he did lay out his arguments in a straightforward and deliberated fashion in national addresses. But an increasing insularity began. And his last ditch effort–a Friday op-ed in the Washington Post, probably written by an account director at Ogilvy PR–typifies his failure over the past 11 months. Instead of making his case to the people of Pakistan (and also internalizing their feedback), Musharraf was busy making his case to policymakers in Washington.

Saturday’s Guardian quotes an unnamed PML-Q official (Tariq Azim or Mushahid Hussain?) describing Musharraf as worn down and isolated:

“He’s been sulking…He’s retreated into a mental bunker, which is not healthy. He thinks everyone is out to get him and only listens to a small circle. It’s a dangerous mindset to be in at this point in time. He could decide to hit back.”

PEMRA’s actions against Aaj Television suggest Musharraf could have one more fight in him. But it remains difficult to see him being allowed to punch below the belt. Without that advantage, Musharraf might decide it’s not even worth taking a swing.

UPDATE – Sunday 02:48PM New York/Monday 12:48AM Islamabad: Pervez Musharraf’s spokesman Rashid Qureshi denied suggestions in the Telegraph article that the president was considering an imminent resignation.   He said, “Frankly if President wants to talk about such matters, he will have to talk to the people of Pakistan…I discard the authenticity of [the] news story as the newspaper does not identify its source. It seems that someone is planting such rumors.”

Bolta Pakistan Returns; Cable Operators Shut it Down

Bolta Pakistan, the political talk show featuring Nusrat Javed and Mushtaq Minhas, is appearing for the first time in four months. Javed and Minhas were banned from Pakistani television by the government after emergency rule and media restrictions were imposed.

Their show is broadcasting on the Internet and satellite, but their feed to most Pakistanis was removed by cable operators 10 minutes into the show.

This episode’s topic: U.S. interference in coalition government talks between Pakistan’s political parties.

FYI: YouTube has also been possibly banned in Pakistan.

The Sharif-Zardari Meeting: Slow, Soft Steps To Nowhere?

People’s Party Chairman Asif Zardari and Muslim League President Nawaz Sharif held a press conference less than an hour ago at Zardari House in Islamabad. It was largely conducted in English, suggesting a given importance for international consumption.

Nawaz Sharif’s body language and voice suggest that he was a bit subdued or disappointed, though he did make several jokes. Zardari seemed more upbeat and in the driver’s seat.

In short, both Sharif and Zardari were fairly vague. They agreed in principle to form governments in the center and the provinces, but there are significant differences between their two parties. They skirted discussion of these issues, though Zardari was more willing to admit them.

Sharif is in a more difficult political position. Acknowledging these differences and political cooperation with the PPP would demonstrate his compromising on his uncompromising campaign positions. Sharif’s clear and uncompromising stances on the major, largely Musharraf-related issues have revived his political career. Why would Sharif compromise when he’s not the largest member of the coalition and recipient of the spoils of power? If the PPP clings to Musharraf, then Sharif would likely part ways with the PPP and continue his anti-Musharraf and pro-judiciary stance.

The two parties disagree on three major issues:

  • working with Musharraf;
  • having the PML-Q and MQM as part of the national ruling coalition;
  • restoring the deposed judges to their positions.

On the first two issues, pressure from Washington is a major force dividing the PPP and PML-N.

Zardari blatantly refused to answer a question about pressure from Washington to work with Musharraf. He also didn’t directly address the issue of Musharraf’s impeachment or resignation, simply stating that all issues would be handled constitutionally via the parliament. Sharif agreed, but said, “the nation today has given out its verdict [against Musharraf]…The sooner he accepts the verdict, the better.” In other words, Sharif still wants Musharraf to resign. Zardari is backtracking from his similar statement on Tuesday.

Washington wants a coalition including the PML-Q, and prefers the PML-N remain out. They are actively pushing this in negotiations with the PPP and Musharraf’s aides. Zardari did admit Sharif has “reservations” about who should be part of the coalition. He said he’s looking to create “a government of national consensus,” and in the national interest, is trying to include “all political forces in and out of parliament.” When Zardari was asked about whether or not he’ll work with pro-Musharraf forces, he evasively replied, “I don’t believe that pro-Musharraf forces exist.”

On the judges issue, Sharif pulled out a paper and awkwardly read this statement: “In principle there is no disagreement on the restoration of the judiciary. We will work out the modalities in the parliament.”

There were, however, areas of agreement between the two parties. They agree on:

  • reviving parliament as the strongest institution in the country and a restoration of the 1973 constitution.
  • the primacy of politics as a means of dispute resolution. Zardari said, “All the issues facing Pakistan can be solved by the political forces.” He specifically mentioned the issues of Balochistan and provincial autonomy.
  • requesting the United Nations to help investigate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Sharif said that his party respects the PPP’s mandate “wholeheartedly” and will support its government in Islamabad and ensure that it completes its five year term.

Zardari also admitted the process of forming a government will be extended. He said there is no deadline for forming a government and that there are “a lot of modalities to cover.” Nonetheless, his party and the PML-N have “in principle…agreed to stay together.” Sharif noted that their “agreement is on the restoration of the 1973 constitution.” He emphasized the failed Charter of Democracy signed by Sharif and the late Bhutto. Zardari never mentioned the document.


Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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