The PML-N Advances in the Battle for Punjab

The Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) made major gains in today’s by-elections.  It won ten additional seats in the Punjab Provincial Assembly.

Two belong to Shahbaz Sharif.  He’ll have to give up one of them; the results of both could even be nullified.

Still, the PML-N is now better placed to control Punjab without the support of the People’s Party (PPP).  All it needs is to gain close to a dozen defectors from the Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q).  PML-Q forward bloc members in the Punjab Assembly have displayed a greater propensity to side with the PML-N than their equivalents in the National Assembly, who have merely distanced themselves from the Chaudhries of Gujrat and the convenient fall guy, Shaukat Aziz.

The first shot of a war between the PML-N and PPP could very well be fired in Punjab, control of which is of immense importance to both parties.

It could have very well have been fired with the appointment of Salmaan Taseer, who serves as the PPP and Musharraf’s check on the PML-N.  Earlier this year, Zardari said he would move to Lahore.  This never materialized, much like the Murree Accord’s promises.  But it signaled his intent to re-build the PPP in Punjab.  This month, Taseer announced that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari would tour the province this summer.  The teenager–in effect, a socialist-feudal sajjda nashin–would be gracefully politicized and beatified (in life) through a soft induction in the Seraiki belt.

In short, the battle for Punjab is, in many senses, the battle for Pakistan.  The PPP needs to consolidate its position in southern Punjab and push up north.  The PML-N dominates urban centers in the province’s north and center, but could use some expansion southward.  The party could become overly insular in Punjab; it would be wise to use its increasingly comfortable position in Punjab as an opportunity to expand into Pakistan’s other provinces.  And that requires not only reaching out to non-Punjabis through national issues (sovereignty, peace, and the rule of law), but also through appreciating their provincial concerns — particularly in respect to provincial autonomy and resource sharing.

Nawaz Sharif’s chief ministership of Punjab during Benazir Bhutto’s first term as prime minister paved the way for his first stint as PM.  Shahbaz Sharif’s objective is to run Punjab well and help that serve as one source of leverage catapulting the PML-N to power nationally.  The PML-N’s gains in Punjab have put it forward on that path.  But if it, like the PML-Q, embraces ethnic chauvinism (in this case, Punjabi), it will win Punjab and lose Pakistan.  That, in reality, is a loss for everyone as it will push Pakistan further along the path of fragmentation.

At a broader level, Pakistan’s socio-political stability is dependent on the PPP and PML(N) partnering on core issues yet at the same time competing against one another not only in Punjab, but also elsewhere in the country — from Khyber to Karachi, Balochistan to Bahawalpur.

President Zardari?

PPP Co-chairman Asif Zardari paired up with Punjab Governor Salman Taseer at a rally today in Lahore to do their own muscle flexing. Zardari wasn’t able to fire up the crowd as Nawaz had done twice last week. But he did say his party can hold a long march of its own. And then he made a highly suggestive proclamation: the PPP will move to make changes in the presidency when it sees fit and the chant of “Long live Bhutto” will ring from the presidential palace.

Was he talking about himself? Nusrat Javed of Aaj Television says he received an unconfirmed report that Zardari met with US Ambassador Anne Patterson who said her government is willing or ready to let go of Musharraf but is concerned about who comes next. Zardari, the reports claims, then asked, “Why not me?”

If the PPP’s constitutional package goes through, the presidency will be weakened considerably. But keep in mind no one’s talked about reforming the National Command Authority, and that means a President Zardari would be in control of Pakistan’s nukes.

The Long March Ends: Islamabad Comes Alive

Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab and illegitimate offspring of the PPP-Musharraf affair, called the Long March a “dud” and a “failure.” He said the PPP’s teenage leader, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who does not speak Urdu (or Punjabi), would begin a mass contact tour in Punjab this August when on summer vacation from school.  The ‘child monarch’, he said, would be far more successful than the lawyers.

Taseer spoke too soon. The Long March got off to a shaky start this week but ended Saturday morning in Islamabad rocking the entire city, and, indeed, Pakistan.

Those who attended the rally in Pakistan’s capital came from all walks of life and all corners of the country.  They were lawyers, human rights activists, leading literary figures, professionals, retired army officers, religious leaders, families of the ‘missing persons,’ and even students from the infamous Lal Masjid.  There were workers from the Muslim League (Nawaz), Tehreek-i Insaaf, Jamaat-i Islami, and the Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party. Even some Peoples Party workers snuck in.  Senior figures present ranged from Asma Jehangir on the left to Qazi Hussain Ahmed on the right.

But the crowd wasn’t just political workers and activists.  It also consisted of regular citizens — men, women, children, families, and even a plucky 90-year old woman.  Some told a GEO News reporter that this is the first time they’ve participated in such an event.

Early estimates put their numbers at 20-50,000, but as of midnight local time, GEO News reported that approximately 200,000 had assembled in Islamabad.  Later reports–the event ended almost five hours later–claimed as much as 500,000.  Regardless of the exact figure, Friday-Saturday’s event was the largest rally ever in the city.

Those who joined the lawyers braved a wide array of obstacles: heat (the day’s high was 95°F), rising inflation (gas and food prices, in particular), and the specter of terror.  The crowd, with a few insignificant exceptions, was disciplined and well-behaved.

To its credit, the PPP-led government provided excellent security for the event.  [Earlier in the day, Ishaq Dar, Ahsan Iqbal, and Khawaja Asif attended a meeting with PM Gilani, Rehman Malik and others to review security arrangements.]  The police were respectful and intelligently deflected a brief attempt by a handful of provocateurs associated with the Jamaat-i Islami’s student wing to break into no-go areas (such as the parliament).  The government even provided water–though their supplies ran short because they estimated a turnout of 70,000 max–and porto-potties.

Interestingly though, the government-run news service, the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) did not cover the event.  And during Aitzaz Ahsan’s speech at the historic event, Taseer’s Business Plus channel broadcasted other programming instead.  At one point, it was showing, “Today in History.”  Taseer had the nerve to lecture the media on “self-accountability” today.

In short, contrary to Taseer’s premature assertion, the Long March was a success on a purely numbers basis.  But it ended without closure.  The event amounted to muscle flexing by Nawaz Sharif and Aitzaz Ahsan’s respective movements.  The reasons for this are many, but most importantly, both are not willing to firmly press against Asif Zardari and what can be seen as his faction of the PPP.  They are waiting for the present government to come to its senses and do not want to create instability.

And so, the Long March ends with a big question mark.  There are many implications and unsettled issues, which I will discuss in a subsequent piece.

But what is clear is that the judiciary issue will not die.  It represents the convergence of a renewed Pakistani nationalism and desire for the rule of law–particularly by the growing middle and upper-middle class.  The judicial cause is, to a large extent, the expression of a public demand for a Pakistan that is sovereign, constitutional, and democratic.  It is a force to be reckoned with.  Those who seek to negate its electoral expression are playing with fire.

Shaukat Aziz Gets Something Right

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has become the scapegoat for the country’s present economic challenges.  Much of the blame is well-deserved, though many of his former allies have put a disproportionate amount of responsibility on him to save themselves.

However flawed or failed his economic policies, Aziz manages to get some things right in an interview with Dawn.  He notes that the the PML-Q was a party of opportunists.  He also predicts Nawaz Sharf fully parting ways with Asif Zardari, resulting in new elections that the PML-N will sweep.  This, he says, will produce a two-party system with the PML-N governing and the PPP in the opposition.

Aziz’s prediction, I believe, is incisive and has a high likelihood of realization.

The PPP is generally assumed to be Pakistan’s largest political party.  But few recall that the PML-N won a majority of National Assembly seats in the last elections before Musharraf’s coup. Nawaz’s renewal (through his mix of nationalistic, anti-Musharraf, and pro-judiciary stances) combined with the Zardarization of the PPP (which mitigates the Bhutto factor) could bring his party back to such levels.

In recent days, the possibility of rapprochement with the PML-Q (or at least the Chaudhries of Gujrat) has increased.  There have been rumors of a Nawaz-Shujaat meeting in London this weekend.  Patching things up with the Chaudhries could work both ways.  It could tar the Sharifs, but also consolidate the Muslim League factions (excluding Pir Pagaro’s peculiar branch) and shore up the position of the PML-N (or by then, the PML) in Punjab, and–by virtue of that province’s size–nationally.

The question then would be: Will the PML-N revert to simply being the product of an anti-PPP vote bank (which many Pakistani analysts argue has been a determining factor in elections since the PPP’s emergence)?  Alternatively, will the PML-N continue on its present course, as a party that largely stands for something?

At the moment, things are unclear.  But what is and has always been obvious is that Pakistan would be better served with a substantive political discourse as well as its two major parties having a national reach.  The latter can be said for the PPP, to some degree, but the PML-N has had difficulty expanding beyond Punjab and the NWFP’s Hindko belt.  Both the PML-N and PML-Q have come out on the same side on the Kalabagh Dam issue–one that is seen by name as being another case of ‘Punjab vs. the rest’.  The PML-N will lose an opportunity to project its influence beyond Punjab if it does not use that project’s failure as an opportunity to lead a national discourse on inter-provincial relations, particularly over natural resources.  It can still win nationally by sweeping Punjab, but that would put Pakistan further on the path of Balkanization, make governance difficult, radicalize alienated groups, and produce a subsequent government led by the PPP including parties from the smaller provinces.

Pakistan then would be reliving the 1990s and the deleterious politics of antagonism.

Server Issues

Our servers have been extremely slow and often unresponsive over the past few days. This has made both visiting and my posting to the site fairly prohibitive. Server speed has since returned to reasonably tolerable levels now. My apologies.  A new post is expected this evening.

Terrorists Strike Danish Embassy in Islamabad

A car bomb blast at the Danish embassy in Islamabad has killed at least eight individuals and injuring eight.  The attack occurred in an affluent area of the city (F-6-2), somewhat near the Luna Caprese restaurant that was attacked in March.

This Revolution Will Be Televized

June has begun. Pakistan is set to simmer this summer.

The People’s Party’s proposed constitutional package will soon be debated in parliament. Pressure on Pervez Musharraf to resign will increase. The summer heat will be met by scheduled blackouts. At the month’s end, by-elections will take place, including the Sharif brothers as candidates.

In between, the lawyers’ movement is expected to begin its long march on the 10th. But in reality, the long march has already begun. The lawyers are touring cities across Pakistan, holding large rallies well past midnight broadcast live on multiple television stations. Rather than fulfilling prophecies of their self-destruction, the lawyers are self-adjusting to changes in Pakistan’s political discourse and on-the-ground realities. Their Peshawar rally on Saturday is clear evidence of their adaptability to the increased importance of socio-economic issues, such as inflation and food shortages.

PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari has said that his party was elected not on the basis of restoring the deposed judges, but its original slogan: providing bread, clothing, and a home. He has also said that his goal is to restore the supremacy of the parliament. His statements were designed to demote the judges issue to the second tier. And so the major speakers at the Peshawar rally — including Iftikhar Chaudhry, Aitzaz Ahsan, and Muneer Malik — emphasized the interconnectedness of the judicial cause to these ‘tier one’ issues. Justice Iftikhar said his speech was on the how restoring parliamentary sovereignty requires the restoration of an independent judiciary. He also argued that the absence of the rule of law produces terrorism, economic exploitation, and the rule of the tyrant (the dictator and the landlord). Iftikhar and others spoke not of justice for men with powdered wigs, but for the common man. He highlighted the recent acts of vigilante ‘justice’ in Karachi, stating that ordinary citizens will take the law into their own hands if there is no institutionalized justice.

The lawyers’ movement is resisting attempts to make it irrelevant or even fractured. Rather than ditching the chief justice, Aitzaz Ahsan has stood by him. In Pakistan, Aitzaz navigates somewhat delicately between his two allegiences: to the Zardari-led PPP and the lawyers’ movement. In a television interview with Nasim Zehra broadcast today, Aitzaz said that the PPP’s leadership has good intentions regarding the judges, but were recipients of “bad advice.” However, in today’s New York Times Magazine, Aitzaz hits hard at Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto.

He tells James Traub of his “disdain” (Traub’s words) for Benazir’s self-designation as the PPP’s “life chairperson.” And he says that “most” of the corruption cases against Zardari were justified. He, quite honestly, tells Traub, “The type of expenses that she had and he has are not from sources of income that can be lawfully explained and accounted for.”

Traub writes that Aitzaz “recognized that the P.P.P. was itself a feudal and only marginally democratic body led by a figure accused of corruption and violence.” Aitzaz tells him that Zardari “doesn’t want independent judges. He wants dependent judges.”

Aitzaz’ interview with Zehra was recorded before the magazine article came out, so Aitzaz’s controversional comments were not discussed. But the story could cause a bit of a storm in Pakistan on Monday. Aitzaz will likely say that he was misquoted and continue to profess his allegiance to the Zardari-led PPP till he reaches the decisive point where his two paths ultimately split.

Aitzaz and his fellow lawyers are not going to back down any time soon. Justice Iftikhar (via Tariq Mahmood) was offered and flatly refused a seat at the International Court of Justice by U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson (which Aitzaz mentioned in his Peshawar speech). A prisoner for much of 2007, will he and his cause be victorious in 2008? It’s difficult to say. But what is clear is that the path will likely be drawn out and messy.


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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