PML-N Leaves Coalition, Joins Opposition; Proposes Own Presidential Candidate

PML-N Leader Nawaz Sharif has announced that his party will be leaving the governing coalition completely and will sit in the opposition.  He made this statement in a press conference that is occuring as I write.  The PML-N will also put forward the name of Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, a judge who retired when Pervez Musharraf took over and requested that he take an oath on a provisional constitution, for the presidential elections.

The PML-N seems to have had no other choice.  It made agreements with the PPP one day, only for that party’s leader, Asif Zardari, to state the next day that the pact had no value.

But Pakistan’s polity is heading for a left-right split and this is dangerous.  Pakistan’s parties will be split along the lines of pro-Zardari and anti-Zardari, pro-war on terror and anti-war on terror, pro-Iftikhar Chaudhry and anti-Iftikhar Chaudhry.  Sound familiar?  Zardari and his PPP have effectively taken the place of Musharraf and the PML-Q.  His presidency is unlikely to last long and his party could take major blows from his failed power grab.  After all, the party’s formal chairman is 19 years old.

The polarization of Pakistan’s polity is an affront to the mandate of the February 18th elections.  Pakistanis voted for change.  They made clear their desire for Pakistan’s two major parties to join together at the center.  They made clear that they wanted a new politics, not the games of the past.  Instead, they have received recycled, yet unrehabilitated characters from the past.

Zardari overcame his character deficit with magmamity and prudence in the months after his wife’s death.  Yet he has returned to his old self, which Pakistanis were never fond of.

About deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry: it is strange how so many powerful Pakistanis fear one good judge.  It is a testament to how much political and financial power are contingent upon a state of lawlessness and graft.  It is also strange that the rule of law movement is being opposed so vigorously when Baitullah Mehsud has accelerated his plans to establish his own judicial system across the tribal areas.  In a sense, Pakistanis face a choice between Iftikhar Chaudhry and Baitullah Mehsud.  Eliminating the former is a vote for the latter.

Finally, the PML-N’s control over Punjab is not in danger by it leaving the government at the center.  It’s one vote short of a majority in the Punjab Assembly and there are plenty of PML-Q defectors and independents willing to join its ranks.  But let’s see how the PML-N performs as in the opposition.  It does not appear that it will adopt a policy of mindless antagonism as it and the PPP did in the past.  But that depends a lot on the PPP’s behavior, and the events of recent months are not encouraging.

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Two Weeks After the Elections, Is a Government in Sight?

Roughly two weeks have passed since Pakistan’s elections, but parliament and the provincial assemblies have yet to convene, governing coalitions haven’t been finalized, and Pakistan’s largest party hasn’t chosen its prime ministerial nominee. The sluggish pace of the transition was expected, though if the status quo prevails into the weekend or next week, those interested in Pakistan’s stability and political reform should be concerned.

The political situation in Pakistan remains quite fluid.

Two days after the elections, the People’s Party (PPP) and Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) agreed to form a government “in principle.” But since then, the two parties haven’t really addressed the major sticking points between the two publicly, and the PPP has continued in direct and back channel talks with Pervez Musharraf and his domestic and foreign allies. At the same time, the Supreme Court has dismissed petitions against Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordiance, which enabled political re-entry for Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari, but not Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif.

Though the PPP is positioned for accommodation with Musharraf, the basis for a PPP, PML-N, and Awami National Party (ANP) coalition government in the center remains intact. Both can occur, but they are more likely to be mutually exclusive.

Last week, it appeared that the PPP was putting forward a prime ministerial nominee from Punjab, not Amin Fahim from Sindh. But now there are reports that Fahim is back in the good graces of Zardari — or, at the very least, a majority of the party’s central executive committee.

What is clear is that the PPP is positioning itself for a measured opposition to Pervez Musharraf that will enable it to either extract maximal concessions from him or go for the jugular–impeachment–when ready (or both).

In contrast, the PML-N would like to keep a safe distance from the president, consistent with its anti-Musharraf election campaign, so as to reap full rewards from his eventual downfall.

More to come.

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Sunday Wrap-up

Earlier today, Pervez Musharraf announced that he expects to hold elections in early January and the National Assembly will be dissolved this week, as planned.

Yesterday, Musharraf stated that elections would occur prior to February 15. Last Sunday, Shaukat Aziz warned that elections could be delayed for up to a year, and then on Monday, he said that they would go on as scheduled.

As a result, it is unclear as to whether Musharraf’s ‘expectation’ will be realized. Much could occur in the next two months or – based on the week’s events – in the next two days to push back the elections.

Today, on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Condoleezza Rice stated that it is a “positive development that elections are going to be held” – taking the liberty to translate Musharraf’s ‘expectation’ into something more certain. She reiterated her administration’s demands that Musharraf remove his uniform, hold free and fair elections, and lift the state of emergency “as soon as possible.” In today’s press conference, Musharraf, however, did not specify when he will resign from the army and when the emergency will end.

Noticeably absent from the Bush administration’s statements on Pakistan is a call for the restoration of the Supreme Court justices extra-constitutionally removed by Musharraf. Rice, when questioned by Stephanopoulos on Musharraf’s sacking of the judiciary and replacement with “handpicked” justices, stated that it is “not a perfect situation [in Pakistan]…and no one would suggest that it is.” She added, the “key is to take this in steps.” Rice’s endorsement of elections sans the rule of law is a vote in favor of electoralism, not democracy – putting Pakistan’s lawyers’ movement in the same dust bin as Egypt’s Kifaya.

The Bush administration is clearly acting in accordance with retired Pakistani diplomat Tariq Fatemi’s prediction last Sunday that it would publicly express “regret and expectation of improvement,” but privately it would be business as usual – with a focus on the war on terror, Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, and the possible war against Iran.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a member of the ruling PML-Q party, said that it is yet to be determined whether the elections will be held under emergency rule. Indeed, it remains difficult to see how free and fair elections can be held while: the constitution is suspended; major opposition leaders are in jail, under house arrest, or exiled; the most prominent news channels in the country are blacked out; pockets of the Northwest Frontier Province are under militant control; there is a nation-wide danger of suicide bombing; and a ban on public rallies is possible. If the elections do occur, there is a strong possibility they will be held excluding parts or all of the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas with the entire country under emergency rule.

Musharraf’s extra-constitutional measures create a peculiar type of uncertainty in Pakistan. Emergency rule can be declared by the president, while martial law is declared by the army head. Musharraf in his Proclamation of Emergency letter identifies himself as “Chief of the Army Staff.” The text of the Provisional Constitutional Order, however, empowers the president — not the chief of army staff — with extra-constitutional powers, such as amending the constitution by decree. It remains unclear as to how an army chief made a presidential decision. Though they are currently held by the same person, the positions are separate with distinct powers.

In any event, were Musharraf to resign from the army while under emergency rule, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani would assume its leadership; Musharraf — not Kiyani — would, however, maintain extra-constitutional powers mentioned above under the PCO.

Still, even if Musharraf would like to resign from the army before November 15, it will be difficult. He needs the Supreme Court to decide on his election eligibility, but they will be slow to come to a decision because of a number of factors, including: a complete court hasn’t been set up (perhaps one judge short), one petitioner (Aitzaz Ahsan) is in jail, and the case has to be restarted as a result of changes to the court’s formation.

What is clear is that Musharraf will continue to make use of his capacity under the PCO to amend the constitution by decree. He has already amended the Army Act, extending the army’s capacity to try civilians for a wide range of charges, including:

treason, sedition and attack on army personnel to “assaulting the president with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power” and “giving statements conducive to public mischief”.

The likelihood of such an act being used on the political opposition is significant. Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, was tried under an anti-terrorism court after being overthrown by Musharraf.

Subsequent amendments by Musharraf could: remove of the Supreme Court’s suo moto powers; suspend a sitting chief justice while under reference; facilitate Benazir Bhutto’s return to power.

Speculation as to who will lead Pakistan’s caretaker government is rife. Mentioned candidates include: Mir Balakh Sher Mazari, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, Hamid Nasir Chattha, S.M. Zafar, Moin Qureshi, Jehaghir Karamat, Ihsanullah Khan, Naseem Ashraf, Ishrat Hussain, and Mushahid Hussain.

The fate of Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the PML looks gloomy. Its two senior leaders are abroad and it is unlikely they will be able to return to Pakistan and participate in elections. It appears that more of its Pakistan leadership and workers have been arrested than any other party during emergency rule. If Musharraf’s regime collapses, they would, however, benefit most politically, and this would be due to their distance from both Musharraf and Washington.

In the current context, they have been immobilized.  Morever, they do not have a personality in Pakistan matching the stature of Benazir Bhutto — who, in maintaining talks with Musharraf and assuming leadership of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (and pushing out the PML-N from its leadership), is having her cake and eating it too.

Both the Musharraf camp and Washington clearly prefer that Benazir outweigh, fracture, or lead the opposition. The success of her planned Long March from Lahore to Islamabad (set to start this Tuesday) will be telling. Will Bhutto just follow the motions till the rally is stopped by an ordinance against rallies or another day-long house arrest? Liaquat Baloch of the Jamaat-e Islami says that Bhutto doesn’t appear to be too serious about the march; she apparently hasn’t contacted other parties.

Another test of Benazir’s sincerity is whether she will continue to support the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the private news media. These two, combined with the PML-N, are arguably Musharraf’s greatest political threats.

Musharraf’s darkest days this year were in May, after the chief justice’s failed visit to Karachi that saw brutal street violence depicted (quite excessively, indeed) on the television screens. His popularity dwindled and he was eventually forced to restore the chief justice to office. After an extended period of seclusion, Musharraf appeared on Talat Hussain’s program on AAJ TV to make his case to the public.

Rather than continuing to engage the Pakistani public through the private media, he then made his own TV show on Pakistani state television (PTV). The show was produced well, but the problem is few watch PTV. So the government then sold the program to private channels to air; simultaneously, they flooded these channels with political advertisements promoting Musharraf and Punjab Chief Minister Pervez Ellahi.

Musharraf’s media relations strategy then collapsed with the imposition of emergency rule. Rather than coming to terms with the fact that Fourth Estate by is nature at least a nuisance for those in power — but can be patiently managed — Musharraf took an authoritarian route; in squashing the media, Musharraf attacked the very institution whose growth was once seen as his achievement and naively assumed they would submit to his code of conduct.

Conservative radio host Monica Crowley stated today on The McLaughlin Group that “Democracy in Pakistan will look a lot like democracy in Gaza.” She also did suggest last year that Iran could already have nuclear weapons.

Eleanor Clift, a liberal panel member on the same show, retorted that Benazir Bhutto would get 70-80% of the vote in free and fair elections. Clift has, apparently, been hypnotized by Benazir’s gold-studded Gucci glasses.

In a decision that would prove to be ironic, the government of Pakistan declared 2007 the “year of tourism.” Made earlier in the year, this declaration was highly premature as Pakistan had more than its fair share of violence even back then. But now, six out of eight districts of Swat, a prominent tourist destination, are under the control of Maulana Fazlullah — the neo-Taliban warlord. Prospective visitors to the area would have to be suicidal. They would find Maulana Fazlullah readily accepting of volunteers to his pool of suicide bombers.

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A Tumultuous Two Weeks for Pakistan

  • November 6: Earliest date for Supreme Court ruling on Pervez Musharraf’s re-election eligibility
  • November 7: Possible date for Nawaz Sharif departure of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for London
  • November 8: Benazir Bhutto expected to return to Pakistan from Dubai
  • November 8: Supreme Court to receive report from Sindh government on Bhutto blasts
  • November 9: Bhutto to hold rally in Rawalpindi
  • November 15: Musharraf’s presidential term expires
  • ~ November 15: Nawaz Sharif returns to Pakistan?
  • Ongoing: Waziristan insurgency
  • Ongoing: Swat clashes
  • Ongoing: Suicide attacks across the country targeting senior military officials, civilian leaders, and military convoys and installations

Pakistan’s short-term volatility will continue, at the very least, till late January to early February. By then — if things go as scheduled — a new, shaky governing coalition will have formed after fresh parliamentary elections.

There are multiple variables — national, provincial, local, regional and global — that could end up shaping Pakistan’s fate in the near-mid term.

As such, the uncertainty is widespread — going all the way to the top in both Islamabad and Washington. But what is clear is that the next two weeks will feature events of paramount significance for Pakistan.

The most important date on the calendar is November 15, which is when Musharraf’s current presidential term expires. Musharraf pledged that, if re-elected as president, he’ll resign from the army, vacate the position of chief of army staff (the most powerful position in the country), and take his second term oath as a civilian.

Musharraf has already been re-elected, but his candidacy remains contested. It’s an asterisked victory similar to Barry Bonds’ breaking of Hank Aaron’s home run record.

In a ruling as convoluted as Pakistan’s constitutional history, the Supreme Court permitted presidential elections (conducted via an electoral college) to go on with Musharraf on the ballot, but deferred deciding on his eligibility to run. Their subsequent ruling on his eligibility, which hasn’t been made yet, will be retroactive. If they decide in the negative, Musharraf will — according to Pakistan’s constitution — remain as president until his successor is elected.

The Supreme Court was originally expected to make a decision by today. During the week, Musharraf’s camp put out suggestions in the media that emergency rule could be imposed. This would give the president license to subvert the current constitutional restrictions and time tables imposed on him — though some elements in Musharraf’s circle stated that the election schedule and most press freedoms would remain unaffected.

Most likely, the emergency rule chatter was merely a means to pressure the judiciary to not only produce a decision favorable to Musharraf, but also in the desired time frame. Supreme Court Justice Javed Iqbal replied that the court won’t be impacted by such threats. Indeed, the Court went even further, announcing yesterday that lawyers’ arguments have taken longer than expected and should a decision not be reached on Friday, proceedings would resume on November 12. Their curious explanation for the week-long delay: a justice will be unavailable due to his daughter’s wedding.

Benazir Bhutto apparently took the threat seriously, albeit briefly. She postponed her trip to Dubai as a result, but then surprised many when she left for Dubai yesterday. The reasons for the change in her decision are unknown, but curiously half a day later, Condoleeza Rice issued a statement opposing the imposition of martial law in Pakistan. In other words, Bhutto likely had assurances from Rice before her departure that Washington wouldn’t tolerate emergency rule.

After Rice’s statement, the Supreme Court changed course, announcing today that it will continue deliberations on Monday and Tuesday. After staving off Musharraf’s pressure tactics and perhaps receiving indirect support from Washington, the court could produce a final decision as early as Tuesday.

The court is expected to rule in Musharraf’s favor. Still, Musharraf would like greater breathing room — a comfortable window in between the court’s verdict and the end of his first term.

More imminent than the latter is the potential departure of Nawaz Sharif from Saudi Arabia. Sharif could return to London as early as Wednesday – and possibly try to return to Pakistan the following week.

Meanwhile, Bhutto expects to return to Pakistan by Thursday the latest and address a rally in Rawalpindi on Friday. Bhutto could address the rally virtually by phone or tape recording, but regardless the Pindi rally is highly significant. Firstly, Rawalpindi the seat of the Pakistani army and neighbors Islamabad. Secondly, it’ll mark her first entry into Punjab (Pakistan’s largest province), which will unsettle her greatest political rivals — the Chaudhry cousins of the PML-Q party. The PML-Q is already concerned about losing partial or total control nationally to Bhutto’s PPP. A serious challenge in Punjab, which they govern, by Bhutto’s party would be an existential threat for them politically.

Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N is expected to have a strong showing in Punjab. It has a wider, more natural support base in the province than the Chaudhries’ PML-Q. It could also welcome PML-Q defectors sensing the turning of the tide. An assertive Punjab campaign by the PPP could further eat up the Chaudhries’ spoils, leaving them with little more than Gujrat. In this scenario, they could conceivably pair up with the PML-N or PPP in a coalition, but the odds of them playing dirty are unfortunately greater.

Musharraf (and Pakistan as a whole) faces a tough two weeks. The political-legal uncertaintity and boiling tensions in Waziristan and Swat, combined with the wave of suicide attacks against the armed forces and senior leaders (including Benazir Bhutto and CJCS Gen. Tariq Majeed) across the country, will crescendo.

While emergency rule is highly improbable, Musharraf could issue and utilize an ordinance that would enable the army to court martial and detain civilians indefinitely and without charge. The ordinance would likely be advertised as targeting militants, but there is a strong possibility it could be used against political opponents. If promulgated, the Supreme Court will likely receive petitions against its constitutionality. Still, the Supreme Court has proven to operate slowly as it is overwhelmed with high-profile cases. This could give Musharraf’s government a decent window in which to make use of the ordinance before it is knocked out.

The next two weeks will be a difficult test for Musharraf. At its end, we might find out what lessons he’s learned from the strife of the past year. Will he conclude that the solution involves not greater centralization of power but an efficient distribution of labor between the military, popular civilian politicians, and the judiciary? Will he conclude that his greatest threat is not the country’s civilian politicians or judiciary, but vigilantees who cut off the heads of Pakistani soldiers and incinerate civilians in the streets? Perhaps we’ll see on November 15th.

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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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