Aug 18, 2008
Senate Chairman Muhammad Mian Soomro has become the interim president of Pakistan after the resignation of Pervez Musharraf.
[Interestingly, Barack Obama, eager to boost his foreign policy credentials, can note that he met Soomro decades ago. Obama befriended Soomro's son and stayed at their family home in Pakistan during college.]
Soomro, a Musharraf loyalist and Monopoly Man lookalike, will remain president for a month or so–till an electoral college consisting of parliament and the provincial assemblies elects a permanent replacement by a simple majority.
The potential presidential candidates are many. Below is a list of candidates mentioned in the Pakistani media.
ZARDARI & FAMILY
Asif Ali Zardari, People’s Party co-chairman and Benazir Bhutto’s widower, has expressed interest in the presidency. But such a move could be seen as a blatant power grab. Zardari would then be the locus of public anger–especially if he takes the presidency and opposes a reduction in the office’s powers. He has said that the next president would be a PPP loyalist. Recently, he said the next president could be a woman. Many see this as an inference to one of his sisters, Feryal Talpur or Azra Fazal Pechuho. In such a scenario, Zardari would control the premiership and presidency indirectly.
POLITICIANS FROM SMALLER PROVINCES
Pakistan has faced challenges managing interprovincial relations and inter-ethnic harmony. Presently it has a prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, from Punjab. Gilani is a Seraiki speaker and can be seen as a fine balance between a Punjabi and Sindhi). Many in Pakistan have suggested the appointment of a Baloch or Pakhtun as president. Balochistan is the least integrated province in Pakistan’s federation and home to a bloody insurgency. Attaullah Mengal, a leading Baloch notable and politician, has been noted by some talking heads as a worthy candidate. But his positions on provincial autonomy are unpalatable for most Pakistanis, particularly its military.
Others have pushed forward the names of Pakhtun politicians Asfandyar Wali and Mahmood Khan Achakzai. Like Mengal, they have troubled relations with Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment. Their appointment would require some political gymnastics and compromise.
RETIRED, ‘NON-COMPROMISED’ JUDGES
In order to placate the lawyers’ movement or secure the presidency’s titular status, some have suggested the appointment of a retired judge. Most notable nominees include Wajihuddin Ahmed and Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui. The latter name, I have heard, has been proposed by the PML-N. Both judges refused to take the oath under Musharraf’s 1999 Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) and retired instead.
In a campaign speech, Nawaz Sharif pledged to nominate nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan for the presidency. His statement was likely just political pandering. Khan’s upgrade from house arrest to the presidency is inconceivable. But rightists and Islamists love him.
Another potential candidate is Abdul Sattar Edhi, a leading humanitarian in Pakistan. But Edhi has recently many pro-Musharraf statements and strongly criticized Sharif and Zardari, thus making the likelihood of his appointment low.
At the moment, the president heads the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), which controls Pakistan’s nukes, and is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As a result, the military-intelligence establishment would be keenly interested in who replaces Musharraf.
Salmaan Taseer, presently the governor of Punjab, is someone who would be amenable to both the PPP and the military-intelligence establishment. The name of Jehangir Karamat, a former chief of army staff, was mentioned on television today. But Karamat, like Taseer, has had a rocky relationship with Nawaz. The appointment of either one of them would push Sharif closer toward the opposition benches. Taseer is socially liberal while Karamat was Pakistan ambassador to the U.S. Both would also be very palatable to Washington.
Then there are politicians that have taken a strong anti-Musharraf stance and could be ‘rewarded’ with being ‘crowned’ president. Most notable among them include Aitzaz Ahsan and Imran Khan, both of whom did not run in the recent elections. Appointing them could reintegrate these individuals and their ‘constituencies’ into the political process, boosting support for the government. Aitzaz’s relations with Zardari, however, are troubled. And Imran is seen as a nuisance by mainstream politicians. A more probable candidate from this pool could be Raza Rabbani, a leading PPP senator who managed to maintain a strong pro-lawyers movement and anti-Musharraf stance, while being loyal to Zardari.
NON-PPP GOVERNING COALITION LEADERS
Finally, the coalition government can decide to choose a candidate from the PML-N, JUI-F, and ANP. Such individuals include the aforementioned Asfandyar Wali, as well as Fazlur Rehman and Nawaz Sharif. Fazl has reportedly long fantasized about becoming president or prime minister. But his Taliban ties definitely count him out. He could be pacified with another Land Cruiser. Zardari will have to control Fazl’s blind ambition, as Musharraf had done.
Sharif is a possible candidate. He’s currently barred from elected office. That could be undone if and when the deposed judges are restored. But he’s also unable to serve as prime minister because of a two-term limit. It could take time for that to prohibition to be removed. Sharif could be given a soon-to-be diluted presidency, while Zardari takes the premiership for himself. Would he fall for that?
The electoral college (described in the intro) makes possible a multiple set of voting alliances for the presidential elections.
Possible majority-attaining voting blocs include:
- PPP + PML-N;
- PPP + PML-Q;
- PML-N + PML-Q + Smaller parties + Independents;
- PPP + ANP + JUI-F + MQM + Independents.
This means that the PPP and PML-N don’t have to work together to choose a president. But that would endanger the governing coalition. A controversial candidate could produce an opposing alliance of antagonistic parties. Pakistan’s best best is for the governing coalition to choose a non-controversial person who will be content with a reduced portfolio. For its next president, Pakistan needs a symbol that will help unite it in a time of increasing fragmentation.