Oct 17, 2007 1
Pakistani public opinion data released last week by the International Republican Institute (IRI) strongly indicates that U.S. efforts to facilitate a Pervez Musharraf-Benazir Bhutto power sharing deal are backfiring and necessitate revision.
Talks between Bhutto and Musharraf have been going on for months with persistent encouragement from Washington, including regular involvement by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and periodic interventions by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. A deal between the two, which is virtually complete, would join Pakistan’s most powerful institution, the army, and largest political party, the People’s Party (PPP), in a fight against rising militancy.
Rather than securing a liberal alliance, by overstepping its bounds and excluding former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Washington has helped bolster rightist, anti-American parties and lower the popularity of Bhutto and Musharraf.
Pakistanis oppose U.S. interference in their democratic transition. They resent Washington’s choosing of sides in their upcoming elections—made blatant by its (at the very least) tacit approval of Musharraf’s deportation of the exiled Sharif in September. Washington has wrongly seen Sharif as a conservative threat to the liberal alliance, but closing him out of Bhutto-Musharraf talks leaves him only one card: allying with nationalist and religious parties and making his party Pakistan’s protest vote.
Nawaz Sharif is now Pakistan’s most popular politician. His once dismal approval ratings have skyrocketed in recent months, with Pakistanis forgetting his checkered past. The IRI poll suggests that Sharif’s faction of the Muslim League party (PML-N) could—in free and fair elections—win the popular vote nationally and in Punjab (the largest province), and lead a coalition government with nationalist and Islamist parties in the Afghanistan-bordering Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). A provincial and federal government made up of malcontents and those pushed away by Washington would jeopardize cooperation with the U.S. in areas bordering Afghanistan.
Such a scenario is, however, still avoidable. Parliamentary elections will be held in early January, leaving ample time for Bhutto, Musharraf, and their benefactors in Washington to integrate Sharif into a moderate, centrist set-up. Should their deal survive, Bhutto and Musharraf can secure victory in rigged elections, but the gains will be fleeting and further bolster the opposition (including extremists). Already, a majority of Pakistanis oppose their arrangement, seeing it as an extra-legal measure to clear Bhutto of corruption charges. It’s been a major political blow to both Bhutto and Musharraf; either might decide to jump off a sinking ship.
The submerging of a moderate front against militancy by conservative elements is not inevitable. It can be legitimized and depersonalized by adding Nawaz Sharif into the mix. Musharraf and Bhutto will be able to cut their losses, force Sharif’s party to earn support on their own right—not simply by serving as an alternative—and isolate it from parties further to the right. Bhutto and Sharif will regain shots at winning the premiership, and the latter will be able to mend his relations with the military and Washington. Musharraf can recede to a more secure position mediating between his two counterparts, who slung quite a bit of mud at one another in the 1990s.
The Musharraf camp, with the approval of Bhutto and friends in Washington, can offer Sharif, contingent upon his joining a moderate front against militancy: a pre-election return to Pakistan; dropping of court cases against him and his brother (pending judicial review); the ability to run for the premiership for a third time; and leadership of a consolidated Muslim League party.
The records of Bhutto, Musharraf, and Sharif are quite blemished, but at this point, they represent Pakistan’s largest power factions and three of its major ethnic groups. This albeit flawed tri-partite grouping can help put an end to the elite discord that has ravaged Pakistan since its independence. Previous pacts among Pakistan’s ruling class have been incomplete, guaranteeing those excluded to become spoilers.
The in-fighting has helped create a quasi-failed state. A staggering 73% of Pakistanis see their country as headed in the wrong direction. A majority sees itself as less secure and worse off economically than before. A democratic Pakistan with a balance of power between Musharraf, Bhutto, and Sharif, combined with an emboldened judiciary, press, and civil society, can compel Pakistan’s leaders to boldly confront the country’s major challenges, including militancy and poverty. There is much work to be done.
For the Bush administration, entering its final year, a Bhutto-Musharraf-Sharif deal can secure a long-lasting victory for its pro-democracy and anti-terror campaigns. The so-called Arab Spring quickly winterized in part because Washington failed to account for long-standing factional and structural impediments that were country specific. With its Plan A for Pakistan collapsing, Washington can quickly transition to a more sound Plan B that will serve its interests and those of Pakistan’s 160 million people.