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.

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The PML-Q’s Negative Campaigning

The back page of today’s Khabrain, a leading Pakistan daily, features an interesting political advertisement from Musharraf’s faction of the Muslim League party (PML-Q). [Topi tip: Ali]

The ad paints rival Nawaz Sharif as an agenda-less political opportunist who leans in the direction the political wind blows at the time.

Sharif, once a Zia ul-Haq protege, is shown on the right praying at his grave next to Zia’s son. Below, he’s quoted as saying, “I will complete General Zia ul-Haq’s mission.” On the left, he’s shown at the grave of Benazir Bhutto (an archenemy of Zia), praying alongside senior PML-N leader Javed Hashmi. Below, he’s quoted as saying, “I will complete Benazir Bhutto’s mission.”

Since Sharif’s return to Pakistan, the PML-Q has tried to paint him as a follower, first of Benazir Bhutto (with insinuations against his masculinity) and now the PPP in general. PML-Q President Shujaat Hussain descibed him as part of the PPP’s “B-team.

The bold red text on the bottom of the advertisement asks (presumably both Nawaz Sharif and the reader), “What is your mission?”

The PML-Q has turned to negative campaigning because it has little positive to run on.  Once emboldened by a huge, deficit-running election-year budget, the achievements variably associated with it are vanishing.  Pakistan is in the midst of one of its worst political and security crisis ever.  Additionally, the country faces serious energy and wheat shortages. Surprisingly, Pervaiz Elahi–likely the PML-Q’s prime ministerial candidate/leader in the National Assembly) has blamed all this on none other than former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, a party member.

The party has reportedly changed its strategy, focusing on winning Punjab and not the national elections.  Both the PPP and PML-N will siphon off votes from the PML-Q, which has most recently governed Punjab.  It has tried to play the ethnic/provincial card by casting the PPP as a Sindhi party and the post-Bhutto assassination violence as against non-Sindhis.  But Nawaz Sharif is its major threat in the province, Pakistan’s largest and source of over 50% of its National Assembly seats.  Hence the effort to cast him as a flake and Sindhi tool.

The Collected Sayings of Shujaat Hussain
The Chaudhry cousins have dished out quite a bit of negative sound bites. Below are some selected gems from Shujaat Hussain (more to come):

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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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