Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:22 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:22 | SYDNEY

The view from Pakistan, part 2

21 February 2008 08:39

Guest blogger: Whit Mason is a consultant on international affairs. He is in Pakistan to research a Lowy paper on how the West could contribute to Pakistan's long-term stability.

Millions of Pakistanis, many of them hungry and illiterate, showed courage in voting for change. Though the formal election results broadly reflect their will, it appears highly unlikely that the next government will have the cohesion or, collectively, the will to dramatically improve their lives.

The PPP, led by the widow of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, has won 88 seats while the PML-N led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has won 65. These two parties are widely expected to form the backbone of a coalition government.

The PPP performed less well than expected because it relied on the sympathy vote after Benazir’s assassination and its campaigning was anemic. It equivocated over its attitude toward General Musharraf and so lost much of the protest vote, and it has been unclear about whom it would nominate for prime minister, an ambiguity worsened by widespread dislike of Mr Zardari, who during his wife’s prime ministership earned the moniker ‘Mr. Ten Percent’ for his alleged kickbacks. These were issues that loomed large in cities. In rural areas, which account for two thirds of the votes in Punjab, which itself commands nearly half the seats in parliament, the main concern was the prohibitively high cost of flour.  

The immediate questions, in ascending order of importance, are: Who else will be in the coalition? What concessions will the parties extract from one another as the price of coming together? What does this mean for Pervez Musharraf, who recently doffed his general’s uniform and won another five-year term as president in polls discredited by taking place under emergency rule? And how long can a PPP-MPL-N government, shot through with such longstanding enmities, endure?

Along with their portion of an extra 60 seats set aside for women and 10 for minorities, the PPP will have 113 seats, and Sharif’s PML-N 84. Though no one can yet say so with confidence, it appears likely that the PPP and PML-N will partner with the Awami National Party (ANP), a secular nationalist party based in the Northwest Frontier Province, and the MQM, the party based on those who migrated from India and their descendents and which dominates Pakistan’s largest city and commercial capital, Karachi. Along with a majority of 30 independents, such a government would have over 230 out of the 342 seats in Pakistan’s national assembly.

Nawaz Sharif has been demanding the restoration of 60 judges removed from office when they refused to agree to work under the regime of emergency rule that General Musharraf pushed through on 3 November 2007. Musharraf adopted emergency rule, rounded up political and legal opponents and sacked the judges for fear that they were about to rule that his election as president was unconstitutional. This was the culmination of a crisis that began in March when he sacked the Chief Justice of the High Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, for having challenged the legality of Musharraf’s actions and calling for an investigation of the disappearance of hundreds of Pakistanis, allegedly at the hands of the state’s intelligence services.

Lawyers and human rights activists responded to the sacking with an unprecedentedly sustained series of protests. These protests never managed to achieve a mass following, largely because Benazir Bhutto forebore from calling for her supporters to join the lawyers in order that she might keep her political options open. Nevertheless, the protests and the judges’ subsequent refusal to support emergency rule testified to an impressive — and to many observers unexpected — independence and political courage on the part of Pakistan’s judiciary. Along with the media, the judiciary earned a great deal of public respect.

But diplomatic sources say that Sharif has continued to demand the judges’ restoration only as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with the PPP. He’s expected to ‘sacrifice’ the restoration of the most independent and courageous judges, for whom as prime minister he’d shown contempt, in order to enlarge his own claims within the new government.

Despite the dramatic repudiation of President Musharraf’s party, few here believe he will be forced to step down any time soon. Already, leading commentators are calling for past disagreements to be set aside in the interest of national unity. Others point out that Musharraf will do little harm as long as he confines himself to his constitutional powers and doesn’t threaten to use the power to dissolve the government, which he had granted himself.

The longevity of the new government looks less promising. Though Nawaz Sharif has privately assured diplomats that he would take the fight to Taliban insurgents as aggressively as would the PPP, few believe him. He is famously devout and respectful of the mullahs and as prime minister had promised to make sharia the law of the land. As a party of businessmen, the PML-N will also struggle to agree with the PPP on the management of government business. There is little love lost between senior figures of the two leading parties.