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Home > India > News > Columnists > B Raman

Pakistan elections: Keeping fingers crossed

February 17, 2008

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General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, Pakistan's chief of the army staff, has sought to ensure that the elections be held on February 18, 2008, as scheduled by entering into an informal ceasefire agreement with the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan headed by Baitullah Mehsud, its Amir, and the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi headed by Mullah Fazlulla of the Swat Valley.

There has been a sharp drop in acts of terrorism involving these organisations since February 4.

Gen Kiyani has already withdrawn regular army troops from South Waziristan as demanded by Baitullah and has lifted the economic blocade imposed against the Mehsuds.

He has also entered into talks with Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi of the Lal Masjid of Islamabad through the intermediary of Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam, Pakistan and Chaudhury Shujjat Hussain of the Pakistan Muslim League, which is close to President Pervez Musharraf [Images].

Maulana Ghazi is presently under detention along with some others, who were arrested by the army during the commando action in the Masjid from July 10 to 13, 2007.

Their unconditional release was another demand of Baitullah. There has been speculation that at least the Maulana, if not the others, might be released if the Tehrik-e-Taliban does not disrupt the elections. Both these organisations have publicly stated that they will not disrupt the polls.

Despite the drop in acts of terrorism as a result of this ceasefire, unidentified elements, presumably not belonging to the Tehrik and the TNSM, have kept up sporadic acts of terrorism.

There were two deadly attacks on election rallies of the secular Awami National Party in the North-West Frontier Province and North Waziristan, one ambush of an army convoy in North Waziristan in which a Major and two others were killed and attacks on the telecomminication towers in the Darra Adam Khel area of the NWFP.

There are many jihadi organisations in the NWFP, which are not part of the Tehrik or the TNSM. It should not, therefore, be a surprise that they have kept up their attacks, which are, however, on a reduced scale.

Musharraf, Kiyani and the Election Commission are confident that the elections would be held as scheduled without any serious disruption, but some disruptions in the tribal areas cannot be ruled out.

The Election Commission is concerned that the voter turnout may be very low partly due to security concerns and partly due to general disenchantment among the people with the military as well as the political leadership.

There is a widespread sense of public fatigue with the present crop of leaders. The commission has been appealing to the people to come out and vote. It is concerned that a very low turnout might itself discredit the electoral process even if the elections are free and fair.

Unlike the 2002 elections, which were hardly monitored by the international community, the elections of February 18 are expected to be monitored by at least about 1,000 international montors.

The expected presence of powerful US Senators John Kerry and Joseph Biden among the monitors would impart force and credibility to the monitoring process.

However, even 1,000 monitors cannot be everywhere to ensure comprehensive monitoring. There will be many gaps in the monitoring, which could be exploited by Musharraf and his supporters to have the elections rigged.

Musharraf knows that if his supporters win a majority, the elections would not be accepted as free and fair by his opponents and the international monitors.

There will be a strong presumption of rigging even if the suspicion cannot be proved. Musharraf' is, therefore, hoping and working for a hung National Assembly in which no party will have an absolute majority on its own.

He is reconciled to the prospect of his opponents -- mainly the Pakistan People's Party of Asif Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of Nawaz Sharif -- together acquiring a majority in the National Assembly. He can live with an Assembly in which his opponents have a simple and not a two-thirds majority.

When he got himself re-elected as the president in October 2007 by the previous Assembly, he had promised that he would get his re-election endorsed by the new Assembly.

This would be out of the question if his opponents acquire a majority -- simple or two-thirds. His inability to have his re-election so endorsed need not make his position difficult. Such an endorsement was a moral commitment made by him, but it is not a Constitutional requirement.

Both the PPP and the PML-N have been saying during the election campaign that if they get a two-thirds majority they would work for the abrogation of all the Constitutional amendments promulgated by Musharraf in December 2007 before lifting the state of Emergency and restoring the Constitution. This would pave the way for his impeachment.

If the elections are free and fair, three scenarios are possible:

Scenario 1: The PPP wins a simple or a two-thirds  majority. The US has a strong influence over the PPP, which might let itself be persuaded by Washington, DC to co-habit with Musharraf provided the conditions of co-habitation are worked out to its satisfaction.

Scenario 2: The PPP and the PML-N together win a simple, but not a two-thirds majority. Musharraf may be able to survive as president by manipulating the one against the other.

Scenario 3: The PPP and the PML-N together win a two-thirds majority required for removing the Constitutional amendments and paving the way for Musharraf's removal. Despite US pressure not to rock the boat, the PPP will find it difficult not to go along with Nawaz in his moves against Musharraf.

In the eventuality of Scenario No.1 or 2 materialising, the army may not intervene. If Scenario No. 3 materialises, the army may intervene, with the blessings of the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia, for ensuring that Musharraf's exit comes about in a manner which protects his honour and is not seen by the jihadis as a humiliation for him because of his co-operation with the US in the war against Al Qaeda [Images].

Any perception that he had to quit in humiliation because of his co-operation with the US would be detrimental to the campaign against Al Qaeda.

The US and the rest of the Western world -- despite their disenchantment with Musharraf's failure to act effectively against terrorism -- would want him to continue as the president since they still have confidence in his ability to ensure the security and safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

They would work hard for a co-habitation arrangement, with Musharraf continuing as the president with his powers relating to the nuclear arsenal and the fight against terrorism intact, but his other powers reduced.

Such an arrangement might be possible with the PPP, but difficult to achieve if the PML-N becomes an important member of the ruling coalition.

The US has realised that its open support for Benazir Bhutto [Images] and her statements of unqualified support to the US made her a target of the jihadi terrorists. It is now playing a low profile role using the UK and Saudi Arabia as intermediaries.

Whether Pakistan moves from bad to worse or from bad to not-so-bad would depend on the outcome of the forthconing elections and their sequel.

The entire international community, including India, will be watching the elections closely with their fingers crossed.


B Raman