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Will Zardari dump Sharif?

February 28, 2008 15:21 IST
In the mad, mad world of 24x7 television news, analysis of events has been reduced to sound bytes (I was once asked to say in 15 seconds how I would solve the Naxalite problem). It is impossible to understand the recent electoral verdict in Pakistan without a long hard look at the background forces that led to the outcome.

The first thing to understand about these elections is that it was the pressure by the United States that forced President Pervez Musharraf to undertake this exercise. There was no great movement for restoration of democracy by any political party. In fact, the challenge to Musharraf was mounted by the legal fraternity who took up the cause of dismissed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary. There was public unrest and a show of support to this movement, but it was by itself not sufficient to force Musharraf's hand. The 'credit' for the elections must go to the Americans.

But why did the Americans suddenly develop a love for democracy? The answer to that riddle is to be found in the fact that over the last two to three years, the US's War on Terror and Musharraf, in that order, had become very unpopular. Not merely with the Islamists but even the moderate middle class. It would not be an exaggeration to say that by the end of 2007, Musharraf was left with virtually no support base except the army and even that support could not be taken for granted.

It is to save Musharraf and its operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban that the Americans formulated a game plan. It was a plan to give a 'civilian' face to the military regime, deflect some of the criticism of Musharraf and the army operations and continue the hunt for Osama bin Laden unhindered.

It was under US pressure that Musharraf and the late Benazir Bhutto came together. At the same time the US tried to ensure that Nawaz Sharif (whom they did not trust as he was considered soft on the Taliban) was kept out of the election fray. Given the core support for the Pakistan People's Party among the poorer sections, it was assumed that Benazir would win. Post election she was expected to share power with Musharraf, who would ensure that the anti-Taliban/Al Qaeda operations go on smoothly.

The first setback to this game plan was when the former chief justice, defying the Pakistani history of a pliable judiciary, permitted Sharif to return. Next he went on to question Musharraf fighting the election while remaining army chief. That is why while outwardly the US criticised Musharraf for his November 'Emergency' it took no concrete measures like cutting off aid, thus signaling its tacit approval.

US stakes in Pakistan

According to a recent disclosure in the Washington Post, the US is paying $80 million (about Rs 320 crore) per month for the upkeep and deployment of the Pakistan army on the Afghan border. Overall it is estimated that the US has invested close to $10 billion (about Rs 40,000 crore) in this operation. Yet compared with what it spends in Iraq ($1 billion/Rs 4,000 crore a week) this is small change and the Americans are grateful to Musharraf and the Pakistan army for it.

In addition there is the perennial worry over the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. The creeping Talibanisation of Pakistan was an unacceptable situation. Even now the US and the West are convinced that Musharraf is their best bet.

Analysis of the election verdict

Benazir Bhutto's assassination helped her party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, to emerge as the single biggest party in the national assembly. It is also the only political party that is 'national' in character in that it won seats in all provinces. In Sindh, it has won a majority, in the North West Frontier Province it is number two as also in Baluchistan. But in the all important Punjab, that has over 80 per cent presence in the army, bureaucracy and economy, it was Sharif's party (the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) that won.

Western countries have been lobbying with the PPP to cobble a coalition with the Musharraf-backed PML-Quaid, the Muttahida Quami Movement and independents and keep Sharif out. For Sharif is keen on Musharraf's ouster. He hopes to accomplish this through the re-instatement of the dismissed judges, who are bound to declare Musharraf's election null and void.

At the moment it appears that PPP Co-Chairperson Asif Zardari has stood up to Western pressure and is forming a grand coalition with Sharif. He has also signaled that the PPP would respect the popular verdict in both Baluchistan and NWFP and let the regional parties have their share of power.

If Zardari is to go by US advice and mange a majority by taking on help of the pro-Musharraf League, he will in effect be defying the popular mandate with unforeseen consequences. In certain respects the situation will be similar to that of 1971 when subversion of the popular mandate resulted in the break up of Pakistan.

With Sharif's strong showing in Punjab, he has emerged a key player in Pakistani politics. The million dollar question is will Sharif agree to go soft on Musharraf? But more than anything else the economic reality of Pakistan is that it is surviving on American aid. Any slowdown or cut off in this economic lifeline can cause food riots. The politicians would tread warily when it comes to matching their actions with anti-American rhetoric.

But such is the public mood in Pakistan today that people would soon see through this and it would be only a matter of time before the religious right takes to the streets. It appears they have suffered a setback, having boycotted the elections, but their street power and influence in the army cannot be underestimated.

All in all, one can say that Pakistan has held elections, it is still has a long way to go before democracy is established.

Colonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd) is former joint director, war studies, ministry of defence, and co-ordinator of the Pune-based Initiative for Peace and Disarmament

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd)