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Critical moment

Tuesday 12 February 2008, by Irfan Husain

Pakistan’s election is being fought in the shadow of assassination, insecurity, and economic hardship. Can it - despite everything - offer a path to progress, asks Irfan Husain. 11 - 02 - 2008

The combination of a wet and freezing winter, a partial boycott, and the forty-day mourning period following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on 27 December 2007 has meant that the campaign for the election in Pakistan on 18 February 2008 has been slow to start. Normally, elections here acquire a carnival atmosphere, with candidates providing food and tea to all the locals who visit their offices. Loudspeakers blare out popular songs, together with recorded speeches of party leaders. Banners and posters with the faces of candidates adorn roads and walls.

Voters take advantage of this opportunity to visit several party offices every day to partake of the food and entertainment on offer. But apart from the cold weather – temperatures plunged in Quetta to as low as -9 degrees Centigrade – the security environment has kept people from gathering in large numbers. Two suicide-bombing in recent days - an attack that killed twenty-seven people in Charsada (near Peshawar) on 9 February, at a rally organised by the Awami National Party (ANP); followed by another that killed at least ten people near the town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan on 11 February, also at a rally of the ANP - indicate how dangerous a place the Pakistani campaign trail can be. The fear of terrorist attacks of this nature has made politicians wary of organising large rallies; and the pall of gloom cast by Benazir’s death has still not cleared.

Her chehlum, a religious ceremony held to mark the fortieth day since her death, was observed across the country on 8 February. In Naudero, the Bhutto family home in the southern province of Sindh, Asif Zardari used the occasion to ask the public for its support in the elections that are just a week away. A few days earlier, in an interview with Newsweek, he had muddied the political waters by appearing to suggest that he might be a candidate for the prime-ministerial slot. Babar Awan, a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) loyalist, had supported this announcement. Both went against the earlier position adopted by the party leadership following the murder (whose circumstances - a British police report notwithstanding - and chain of responsibility have yet to be definitively established).

The opening

In the wake of the tragedy, when Zardari was named co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party along with his and Benazir’s 19-year-old son Bilawal, it had been more or less decided that Amin Fahim would be the party’s nominee for prime minister. However, a storm of criticism in the media prodded Zardari into retreat, saying that the American weekly magazine had misquoted him. But despite his denial, an effort to make a bid for the top slot is a distinct possibility. He is not himself a candidate for a national assembly seat on 18 February and thus won’t be eligible for election as leader of the house; but it will be a simple matter to organise a by-election to accommodate him.

After the mourning period for Benazir Bhutto, the PPP campaign has finally got into gear. At a large rally in Thatta in Sindh province, the speeches were mostly about Benazir and her ultimate sacrifice. This seems to be the pattern for the future. But thousands of the faithful are flocking to the PPP rallies, and the party is expected to make a clean sweep in rural Sindh.

In fact, the overall numbers are looking good for the PPP: according to informed estimates, Bhutto’s party is set to win thirty-seven national assembly seats out of sixty in Sindh. These projections give the PPP sixty-four out of 149 in Punjab, one out of two in Islamabad, and nine out of thirty-five in the North-West Frontier Province. These 111 seats out of a total of 263 bring the PPP within striking distance of an outright majority.

“Pakistan: a post-election scenario” (11 January 2008)
The same forecast gives Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) a total of fifty-four seats, almost all of them in Punjab. Another thirty-one seats are expected to be won by independent candidates and small parties, most of which tend to join the biggest party in parliament. Overall, therefore, the PPP can expect to lead a comfortable majority, and thus form a stable government.

True, these projections are predicated on the government holding more or less fair elections on 18 February. The fact is that the numbers are looking more and more ominous for the president, Pervez Musharraf. If the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) the party that ruled the roost under him during last five years, gets the forty seats it is expected to win, Musharraf will be painted into a very small corner indeed. With a hostile coalition in charge, his role will be reduced to insignificance. Under these circumstances, the chances are that he will have no option but to resign.

Already there is every sign that his successor as army chief, Ashfaq Kiyani, is distancing himself and his officer corps from politics. He has issued instructions to his senior generals not to make contact with any politicians, and to meet Musharraf only with his permission; ordered all serving officers seconded to civil-service jobs to return to their units immediately; and said that the army’s job is limited to providing security at the request of the civil administration.

These steps send a signal to politicians and to Musharraf that Kiyani is now his own man, and is bent on disengaging the army from politics and civilian affairs. For Musharraf, after having ruled the country for over eight years, and the army for nearly a decade, these must be bitter pills to swallow. If indeed corps commanders, military intelligence and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are not going to be players in the elections, the PML-Q – and hence Musharraf – are in for a serious trouncing on 18 February.

The aftermath

But a rough ride for the president and its allies does not mean a smooth one for government that emerges from the elections. The weeks of instability and violence following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination have severely affected the economy. The poor planning and under-investment in the gas and electricity industries have led to serious shortages, blocking production in hundreds of factories and textile-mills across the country. The price of flour has shot up largely as a result of smuggling to Afghanistan, and has hit most Pakistanis especially hard.

These problems await the new government, and they are reinforced by an even larger one: a huge gap in the budget caused by the decision of Pakistan’s exchequer to absorb the steady oil-price increase of recent months rather than pass them onto consumers. The political logic was that the ruling coalition could claim that it had cushioned the public from an international price hike. But when the incoming government eliminates this subsidy - as it surely must - it will be blamed for mismanagement.

This perilous economic inheritance is matched by a security one in the shape of the growing threat from the homegrown Taliban and their ilk. Every day seems to bring news of yet another deadly attack, many of them targeted with lethal effect against security forces. The intense fighting in South Waziristan has seen scores of casualties on both sides, though the unilateral ceasefire announced by Baitullah Mehsud - the leader of an militant Islamist faction who was accused by Pakistan’s government of involvement in Benazir Bhutto’s killing - may be a sign that his forces have been thrown on the defensive by the new aggressive posture adopted by the army.

The only escape-route out of Pakistan’s present crisis is a popularly elected government that is supported by the army. Pervez Musharraf has become so much a part of the problem that he cannot possibly be part of the solution.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan