Politics, Karachi Style

I have a blog post on ForeignPolicy.com’s AfPak Channel on the recent violence in Karachi.

Here’s a snippet:

“The Arabian and Indo-Australian tectonic plates meet near Karachi, the Pakistani port city inhabited by at least 15 million people. But in recent weeks, Karachi has been reeling from violent seismic activity along its ethnic and political fault lines — not the collision of geological plates nearby….”

Click here to read the rest.

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The Birth Pangs of Inherited Democracy

The head of Pakistan’s largest political party is on summer vacation from college.

Here’s a video excerpt. The best moment begins at 1 minute 10 seconds, when Bilawal Bhutto Zardari screams his head off.

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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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Words of the Day: Consensus and Reconciliation

The national reconciliation and consensus bus in Pakistan continues to move forward at a steady pace. Today, the country witnessed two, potentially historic, meetings: the first between senior military and civilian officials, and the second between the People’s Party (PPP) and long-time rival Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

This morning, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani gave a briefing on the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to senior Pakistani officials and politicians at the prime minister’s house.

Attending the session were not only Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and cabinet members Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Defense Minister Mukhtar Ahmed, but also leaders of the coalition government parties not currently in the cabinet or parliament, including Asif Zardari, Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali, and Fazlur Rahman. It seems as if Pervez Musharraf was not present, but he did meet with Kayani separately.

Fazlur Rahman, speaking to GEO News, said the briefing was followed by a free and frank discussion among the participants. He said there was a consensus that negotiations were an important part of the solution to the challenges in FATA. Audio-less video of the briefing session showed a normally demure Kayani speaking in a fairly engaged fashion.

The meeting, which seems to have been initiated by Gen. Kayani, indicates that both the civil and military leadership would like to develop a uniform security policy. Also, it suggests that political and security decisions will be the product of civil-military dialog, with the elected leadership holding precedence. Gen. Kayani has been keen to adhere to constitutional propriety. Senior Pakistani journalist Nusrat Javed said the meeting also demonstrates that the Musharraf-established National Security Council is effectively done with.

It has taken almost two months to form a governing coalition, select and elect a prime minister, and compose a cabinet. In and before this period, U.S. military officials have made almost weekly visits to Gen. Kayani, hoping to secure commitments from him that would withstand a potentially obdurate civilian government. But such an arrangement would be untenable as it would pit the army chief of staff against the civilian leadership.

Gen. Kayani’s well-timed briefing can, hopefully, empower the civilian leadership to engage one another, the public, and foreign governments in an informed discussion on how to resolve the crisis in FATA.

After the morning meeting, People’s Party Co-Chairman Asif Zardari made his way to Karachi, where he met with senior leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Zardari said a prayer at the grave of the brother of MQM chief Altaf Hussain and then went to Nine-Zero, the MQM’s headquarters, in Liaquatabad.

Details of the talks have been sparse, but the PPP and MQM leaders presumably discussed a broad rapprochement and, more specifically, the modalities of the MQM joining the federal and Sindh governments.

Relations between the two parties in the past two decades have been bloody. Political and ethnic violence has plagued Karachi, once among Pakistan’s better cities. Reconciliation between the PPP and MQM could help improve the quality of life in Karachi, an overcrowded metropolis.

However, coalition government members PML-N and the ANP have expressed strong reservations against bringing the MQM into the federal cabinet. Given that Zardari has been careful not to alienate his coalition partners, it’s likely that they endorsed his meeting with the MQM.

Once the talks ended, Zardari and Altaf (via telephone from London) spoke at a press conference/rally. Significantly, both admitted to having wronged one another in the past, exchanged apologies and pleas for forgiveness. In a symbolic display, senior MQM leader Farooq Sattar gave an offering of a Sindhi cap and shawl to Zardari, who then placed he Sindhi cap he was wearing on Sattar’s head.

Zardari also spoke of the costs of PPP-MQM conflict, noting “lost opportunities” in the past. He said his generation “lost a long period of time,” but that “nations can rise from ashes.” He added: “If it could be done in Nagasaki, it can be done here.”

The PPP co-chairman said that unnamed “enemies…know how to tear the country apart, but we know how to build it.” This day, he said, would be a watershed moment in Pakistan’s history; it would be noted as the day that Pakistan’s largest party came to Karachi to ask for forgiveness.

He ended his speech with an eclectic: “Long live Bhutto. Long live Altaf. Long live Pakistan.”

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Amin Fahim Sticking to His Guns

Round Two of the Fahim-Zardari talks have just ended.  Fahim spoke to the media outside Zardari’s Islamabad home.  He said there’s no division within the People’s Party, but maintained that he’s the party’s candidate for prime minister.  This contradicts a GEO News report claiming that the PPP has decided that its next prime minister will be from Punjab (most likely Ahmed Mukhtar).

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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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Zardari: National Unity Gov’t With Like-Minded; Will Take ‘Soft, Small Steps’

People’s Party Chairman Asif Ali Zardari held a press conference around an hour ago. He accepted the election results and said his party will form a “national consensus ” government with “friends” who have accepted a set of stipulations.  He apparently listed only one of them, which was to push for a United Nations investigation of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Zardari and other People’s Party officials previously dismissed the Scotland Yard report.

Benazir Bhutto’s widower said his first action would be the removal of the PEMRA ordinance imposed on November 3rd, which places restrictions on the private media and has barred specific news personalities from the camera. Last week, one of those journalists, Nursat Javed, appeared on Aaj TV and the Pakistani government suspended the channel’s satellite transmission for a few hours.

Zardari’s stated his broad goals are the restoration provincial autonomy and return of power back to parliament. He said he will take “soft, small steps.”  He will clearly pursue a more conservative path than Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League, who’s called for Musharraf’s resignation and the restoration of the pre-November 3rd judiciary.  In contrast, Zardari has not called for Musharraf’s resignation.  He’s indicated before the elections that he’d be willing to work with Musharraf.  While Zardari demanded that the deposed judges and Aitzaz Ahsan be released, he fell short of requesting the restoration of the pre-November 3rd judiciary.

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Back to the Campaign Trail

On Friday, the People’s Party will resume formal campaigning as the forty day mourning period of Benazir Bhutto’s death comes to an end. Bhutto’s book, “Reconciliation,” will be released on February 12, though critical excerpts have already been published in the Sunday Times. The publication timing serves to project the party’s outreach outside of Pakistan while also having a trickle down effect in Pakistan. An important goal of the book is to frame Bhutto’s legacy as that of a Muslim democrat and her husband and son as its inheritors. Toward this, the book will contain a copy of her will, which was released to the public today in a press conference.

Inside Pakistan, the People’s Party will leverage three “Benazirs” for public mobilization: Benazir the icon, Benazir the democrat, and Benazir the pro-poor politician. Asif Zardari, Benazir’s widower, will likely run for the National Assembly in a by-election and, if all things go well, assume the premiership from a placeholder. He’s set to lead the party’s campaigning in Punjab, though he’s not running on his own muddied reputation; Zardari presents himself as selfless, a vessel, a Bhutto by default.

Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League party has been back on the campaign trail since early January. Sharif’s campaigning refashions his legacy to make a marked contrast with the Pakistan of present under Musharraf. The essential theme is “this is not the Pakistan I left.” Sharif speaks of a Pakistan whose “self-respect” and “sovereignty” have been violated. Musharraf bows down to the U.S. after a single call from Condi, he says. In contrast, Sharif claims that–despite a number of calls from the Clinton White House and an offering of a large aid package–he conceded to the popular will in Pakistan and topped India by one with a test of six nuclear devices. Musharraf, says Sharif, is “blindly toeing the US policies which has pushed the country into worst crisis.”

The United States, however, plays a secondary role in Sharif’s campaign. He points to many economic challenges in the country: inflation, the shortage of major staples, and the rising gap between the rich and poor. Sharif claims to have put Pakistan on the path toward becoming an “Asian tiger” and “welfare state” and will resume this project if re-elected. He also pledged to restore the deposed judiciary if and when in power.

Returning to the People’s Party, it’s unclear as to what role the United States will play in its campaign. In the 1980s, Benazir tempered anti-U.S. rhetoric from her party, despite the fact that many of her partymembers saw Washington as (at the very least) having enabled her father’s execution.

Few, if any, People’s Party officials speak in favor of Washington on Pakistani talk shows. They are not suicidal. In fact, a senior People’s Party official recently claimed that Benazir Bhutto had changed her rhetoric vis-a-vis A.Q Khan and FATA after returning to Pakistan; the insinuation, made more directly elsewhere, is that this was not differentiated messaging, but a realization that she perhaps had erred. Others, not necessarily People’s Party figures, have suggested that Bhutto was ‘punished’ by the U.S. for this subsequent change; she had even allegedly made positive contact with Baitullah Mehsud, Hamid Gul, and A.Q. Khan.

This chatter demonstrates the widespread suspicion against the United States; associating with it is a self-inflicted political beheading. Even members of Musharraf’s faction of the Muslim League point to foreign conspiracies against the country–vague references that seemingly can include the U.S. as much as India. And while the People’s Party won’t aggressively take on the U.S. in the elections, it will do so indirectly as it attributes Pakistan’s security crises to the inability of popular will to make its way through legitimately elected decision makers. The message is that Musharraf is fighting an American, not a Pakistani war.

The campaign trails will remain somewhat volatile and mine-filled. On Monday, a suicide attack in Rawalpindi killed 10 military physicians. Also, an attempted suicide attack against Maulana Fazlur Rahman was reportedly thwarted. Perhaps a week or so ago, Pakistani security forces also reportedly prevented a militant operation against Nawaz Sharif. Reconciliation talks between the Sharif and Musharraf camps seem to continue. Nawaz was in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Sunday at the same time as Interim PM Muhammad Mian Soomro and Punjab Governor Khalid Maqbool.

And so with two weeks left to go in Pakistan’s elections, the themes and talking points are set, but all else remains in play.

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Bilawal and Asif Zardari to Co-Chair the PPP

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari read the will of his mother, Benazir Bhutto, earlier today in Pakistan.  It designated his father, Asif Zardari, as chairman of the party, who then reportedly declined the position, offering it to Bilawal.  They will co-chair the party. 

Sherry Rehman, a leading PPP figure, has been on the record stating that Bilawal will return to Oxford to continue his studies.  Asif Zardari will run the party on a day-to-day basis, while Bilawal will nominally chair the party till he is completely ready to hold the reigns.  Yusaf Raza Gilani, PPP senior vice chairman, said that Zardari will be the final decision maker in Bilawal’s absence. 

As I have written earlier, Bilawal is the best bet to continue the Bhutto name.  But as a 19 year old unable to speak Urdu and raised for much of his life out of the country, he’s thoroughly unprepared to lead the largest political party in a 160 million person country.  At the same age, his mother sat as an observer in her father’s negotiations with Indira Gandhi at Simla.  Bilawal’s had no such grooming.

The major development has been the sidelining of Amin Fahim.  Does he remain as the party’s vice chair?  Will he continue as a Bhutto loyalist, in spite of having a teenager selected over him as party leader?  He will be the party’s candidate for prime minister.  Zardari hasn’t registered for the elections.  Bilawal is ineligible to contest.  Fahim is a PM candidate by default.  He could very well play the role of Turkey’s Abdullah Gul, holding the PM spot till Asif Zardari or Bilawal are ready (if ever).

And what of Asif Zardari?  Will his control over the PPP last long?  Does he have the energy and the party support?  Will he serve as a placeholder for Bilawal — or will he reign over the party’s fragmentation?  Remember, Benazir faced significant opposition during her rise to the party’s helm — and from non-family members as well.  Her consolidation of power was indelicate, to say the least. Let’s see if party stalwarts remain loyal to Zardari, or whether they’ll slowly push him back to Dubai.

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Things Fall Apart

Benazir Bhutto recently blamed Pakistan’s intelligence services for the fractures emerging in her party’s elite. The former prime minister is highly concerned with cohesiveness of the PPP, making party members take loyalty oaths on the Qur’an. Though the intelligence services have previously and will continue to cause defections from her party, Bhutto alone bears responsibility for the PPP’s current internal challenges.

In late November, Masood Sharif Khattak–head of the intelligence bureau under Bhutto and PPP member for over 20 years–resigned from the party, possibly due to objections over Bhutto’s hardline stance against the insurgents in northwest Pakistan (he is a Pathan) and her dealings with Pervez Musharraf.

Earlier this month, Naseerullah Babar–Bhutto’s long-time national security adviser–rejected offers for a PPP ticket in the upcoming elections, citing his opposition to her talks with Pervez Musharraf.

Last week, Aitzaz Ahsan withdrew his nomination papers after Bhutto rejected his proposal that election candidates take an oath that they will earnestly work for the restoration of the pre-November 3rd judiciary when the new parliament convenes. She said that Ahsan’s proposal– a reasonable compromise that permitted both electoral participation and commitment to the pro-judiciary cause–was his “personal point of view and the PPP has nothing to do with it.” After Ahsan’s withdrawal, Bhutto stated that he must decide whether he’s with the PPP or the chief justice. On Friday, she also stated that the pre-November 3rd judiciary was not independent. As I’ve written earlier, Bhutto never had much fondness for Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and his colleagues. In Dubai, prior to her return to Pakistan, Bhutto accused the court of a historic bias in favor of Punjabis. [Video]

This week, Naheed Khan–one of Bhutto’s closest friends and political allies–also withdrew her nomination papers, albeit for more personal reasons. Khan opposes Bhutto’s proximity to Husain Haqqani, the architect of her U.S. lobbying campaign, and offering of an election ticket to his current wife. Haqqani was previously married to Khan’s sister. While Haqqani is currently a professor at Boston University and a fellow at the neo-conservative Hudson Institute, there are reports Bhutto could offer him a Senate seat when one becomes available. Soap opera drama aside, Nahid Khan’s withdrawal is significant as she had previously been the medium by which people communicate to Bhutto. However, it should be noted that she remains as Bhutto’s political secretary.

What does this all mean? The PPP isn’t necessarily in a state of crisis, but it could be if Bhutto & Company fail to shape up. Rather than blaming the intelligence services for causing splits in her party, these particular developments are the product of Bhutto’s authoritarian hold over the PPP.

Bhutto needs to improve her capacity to channel differences of opinion and multiple dominant personalities within the party into a reasonable mean. Over the course of more than a decade, Bhutto has failed to demonstrate much of an ability to do so; recall how she pushed out her mother and late brother out of the party. The challenges the PPP faces today is the result of her overpersonalization of the party’s decision-making structure and an overaggressive lobbying campaign in the U.S.

Gone is the era in which one could make statements in Washington and not have them reach Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. Bhutto’s statements in Washington regarding giving the IAEA access to A.Q. Khan, for example, made their way to Pakistan instantaneously. Farhatullah Babar, a senior PPP leader and Bhutto loyalist, was compelled to deny that Bhutto had made the comments attributed to her, despite the video recording. The discord between her discourse in the West and in Pakistan has been telling.

Rather than asking Aitzaz Ahsan whether he’s loyal to the PPP or Chief Justice Chaudhry, she should ask herself what is the People’s Party to begin with? Is she the chairperson of the People’s Party or, effectively, the Bhutto’s Party? And has she, in her quest for another premiership, pulled the party too far from its populist, anti-military rule roots?

Instead of pointing fingers elsewhere, now is the time for introspection for Bhutto, for by the time her son Bilawal finishes his studies at Oxford and learns a modicum of Urdu, Pakistan’s first mass political party might be in tatters.

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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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