Since February when they were returned to power in what was by all accounts one of the fairest elections in Pakistan’s history, the four parties that form the new coalition government have agreed on only one thing: forcing President Pervez Musharraf to resign or face impeachment. They used Musharraf as an excuse for their failure to offer a credible programme or devise a strategy to defeat the Islamic terror that threatens the very existence of the Pakistani state.
With Musharraf gone, they have no excuse for inaction and Byzantine manoeuvring. Their internecine feuds could come into the open, weakening their fragile popular base and boosting the Islamist parties that were roundly defeated in the election.
The Islamists, collectively known as Pakistani Taliban, have already served notice they mean to heat things up by ordering suicide attacks that have claimed more than 150 lives since Musharraf resigned. The government has retaliated by threatening to ban them.
The two principal coalition partners, The Pakistan People Party (PPP) and The Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N), hate each other almost as much as they hated Musharraf. That hatred came to the surface Monday when the PML-N announced it was leaving the coalition and would field a candidate of its own for the presidency.
The PPP ‘s principal base is Sind while Punjab provides the PML-N with its electoral backbone. The two provinces, the most populous of the four that constitute Pakistan, have a history of rivalry, and Sind has witnessed the rise of a secessionist movement in the past decade.
Both the PPS’s boss Asif Ali Zardari, who is from Sind, and MLN’s leader Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi, are tempted to seek the presidency.
One reason is that a majority of Pakistanis would not accept either of them as prime minister at this point. Zardari has few qualifications apart from having been the husband of the murdered former Premier Benazir Bhutto. Sharif, who has served as prime minister on two occasions, is too tainted by corruption charges to project the moral authority needed in a deeply divided nation. Knowing that he cannot master a majority, Sharif is pressing for a “candidate of consensus”, someone from one of the other two provinces, Balochistan and The Northwest Frontier.
As things stand in the current parliament, which is to elect the new president on 6 September, neither the PPP nor the PML-N would have enough votes to win the presidency. The parliamentarians who remained loyal to Musharraf might end up deciding the outcome.
The PPP and the PML-N have promised to amend the constitution to revert to a parliamentary system in which the prime minister exercises executive power backed by a parliamentary majority. The president would have a largely symbolic role.
If they do, they would have to replace Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani , always been regarded as a seat warmer. The fight over who succeeds him could tear the coalition apart.
The PPP and PML-N had better patch up their differences fast or agree an amicable divorce after which one would lead the government while the other sits in opposition. A majority of Pakistanis voted them into power on the understanding that they would maintain stability while continuing Musharraf’s policies of economic growth and reform.
Will the parties get the message or will they seek other diversions? They may try demagogic tricks such as rehabilitating A.Q. Khan, the “Father of the Pakistani Nuclear Bomb” and the man who sold atomic technology and equipment to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
On a more dangerous note, they may set free thousands of Taliban terrorists on the pretext that they were “victims of Musharraf’s dictatorship.” After all, the Taliban were created in 1994 when the PPP was in power, and continued to enjoy official support when PML-N was in government. One disturbing sign of this came last week when the government hinted it would reduce the army’s footprint in the Bajaur tribal area and South Waziristan and seek “a political solution”_ while military analysts are unanimous that more troops are needed in both areas.
Another disturbing sign is the government’s U-turn on its decision to bring the ISI, the Pakistani military intelligence service believed to have created the Taliban and a dozen other Islamist militant groups, under civilian control by transferring it from the army to the Ministry of Interior. The decision, announced by Prime Minister Gilani with some solemnity, was cancelled six hours later
Any attempt to soften Musharraf’s stance against terrorism, a stance already regarded as too soft by Washington, could encourage the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies, especially in Afghanistan where the war seems to be getting hotter by the day.
The PPP and PML-N have made it clear they wish to cool down relations with the United States, regarded as an unreliable ally whose policies could radically change according to who is in the White House.
The fact that the Bush administration decided not to utter a word in support of Musharraf, the man who took the strategic decision to turn Pakistan into a US ally in 2001, and the chorus of attacks on him in the US media confirm that impression. The Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama’s casual talk of invading Pakistan has done little to reassure Pakistanis about the reliability of the United States as an ally.
Both the PPP and the PLM-N have always regarded China as Pakistan’s principal ally, especially against India that many Pakistanis regard as an existential threat to their Islamic state.
With the Olympics over, China might end its policy of “no enemies, and minimum involvement in foreign affairs” and seek a more direct say in what happens in Pakistan, a nation it has long regarded as part of its glacis. A decade ago, China’s interest in Pakistan was almost exclusively limited to counter-balancing India as a regional rival. Today, Chinese national security is also involved. Almost all Uighur militants and I terrorists who recently heated things up in Xinjiang, China’s Muslim-majority “Wild West”, are trained by Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Watching these developments would be General Ashfaq Parviz Kayani, who succeeded Musharraf as Army Chief. A US-trained professional soldier, Kayani has shown no signs of a taste for politics. However, with Pakistani generals one never knows.