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Post-election scenario

Saturday 12 January 2008, by Irfan Husain

The prospects both of electoral advance and internal schism reveal Benazir Bhutto’s mixed legacy to her party, says Irfan Husain.

The week of violence and rioting in Pakistan followed Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on 27 December 2007 in Rawalpindi saw fifty-eight people killed. The turmoil has continued, with a suicide-bomb attack at a police checkpoint in Lahore on 10 January 2008 taking the lives of twenty-four more. Yet in politics, it has also been a period of relative calm. One reason has been the approach of Muharram, the month of mourning for when the martyrdom of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammed’s grandson, is marked. The first ten days of the month are observed in especially emotional ways by Shi’a, with reitals of the siege and the final battle, culminating on the tenth day when Hussein and most of his family were killed. In the aftermath of the death of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader, the elections scheduled for 8 January 2008 were postponed to 18 February. The delay, as well as Muharram itself, gives Pakistanis a short breathing-space from politics and electioneering. It is also a time for candidates and parties to pause and take stock of the changing political prospects. When the key ten-day period of Muharram ends on 20 January, normal politics - or what now passes for normal in Pakistan - will resume.

The regional pattern

The post-assassination turmoil was particularly evident in Sindh, Benazir Bhutto’s home province in the south of the country. Here, old rivalries appear to have been buried as Sindhi nationalism reasserts itself. Sindh’s governance has been a microcosm of the political rivalries and divisions of the country as a whole. The PPP has the biggest chunk of seats in the province, but President Pervez Musharraf and his allies - allergic to Benazir Bhutto’s party - have managed to exclude it from power by cobbling together a coalition between the pro-government Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), often referred to as the "king’s party" for its unstinting support for Musharraf) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which represents the mohajir or immigrant community of urban Sindh).

Now, however, the PPP - riding a strong sympathy vote - is widely expected to return with an even bigger mandate. The PML-Q will probably be reduced to a fraction of its earlier number. The most likely post-election outcome is that the PPP will form a coalition government in Sindh with the MQM.

In Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province with 60% of the population, the PPP’s strongest rival is Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, the PML-N. The party, revived after the return of its leader from exile in Saudi Arabia, has made serious inroads into areas previously controlled by the PML-Q; the latter will now have to pay the price of incumbency.

The PML-Q, however, should not be written off. It may be unpopular, but it still enjoys support from an establishment that will go to any length to save the party from being wiped out. The network of local governments created by Musharraf is working hard to persuade voters to support officially anointed candidates. Their access to the exchequer means that they will probably be the decisive factor in gathering votes for the PML-Q in certain rural constituencies.

In the North-West Frontier Province, the coalition of religious parties known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal ( MMA) is expected to perform poorly. Its stunning success in the 2002 election is widely attributed to a number of contingent developments: the newfound unity of the clerics; help from intelligence agencies; and the allocation of the book - widely believed to represent the Qur’an - as its electoral symbol. This time around, the coalition is split as one of its chief components - the Jamaat-e-Islami - is boycotting the vote. In addition, there is widespread disappointment over its performance. Here, a coalition between Maulana Fazlur Rahman’sJamiat-ul-Islam, the PPP, the left-of-centre Awami National Party (ANP) and the PML-N is probable.

In the western province of Balochistan, the bitterness caused by the government’s military action against nationalists in certain tribal areas means that any party viewed as pro-establishment is likely to do badly. Traditionally, the province has produced coalitions of factions and independent parties, and this pattern is likely to be repeated.

At the centre, all opinion polls indicate that the PPP will emerge with the biggest number of seats, with the PML-N in second place. A coalition government formed by the two could well form the basis of the next government, and provide a measure of much-needed stability to the country.

However, such an outcome would not be good news for Musharraf. Both parties have scores to settle with the ex-general, and are likely to unite in reducing the once all-powerful president to his constitutional figurehead role.

The central vacuum

This prospect, however, raises the question of whether such an outcome would be permitted by Pakistan’s key behind-the-scenes power-brokers. The role of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the politics of Pakistan has been widely documented and discussed. This sinister arm of military intelligence has played a decisive role in several elections, and this one - where the stakes are much higher even than in 2002 - is not expected to be any different.

At the same time, any blatant attempt to steal the election could well unleash a firestorm. Benazir Bhutto’s murder is too fresh in the public consciousness for her supporters to accept open rigging. In Sindh, most public officials will be too nervous about provoking watchful PPP activists to follow unwritten instructions. Thus, the effect of Bhutto’s death might be to produce a situation where blatant electoral fraud is much more difficult.

This, however, does not mean that the PPP’s progress to office will be untroubled. For another probable outcome of the tragedy is the disintegration of the party along provincial lines. The smooth succession to a new leadership - conducted in the emotional trauma of its leader’s death, and under the shadow of the elections - may for the moment conceal this deeper tendency. It was important to the party to anoint a successor quickly, and the fact that Bhutto’s will gave her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, a degree of legitimacy and authority made his selection inevitable in the circumstances. But the party leadership’s appointment of their 19-year-old son Bilawal as nominal chairman also recognised the reality that Zardari is a deeply divisive figure within the party (see Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy", 9 January 2007).

Zardari himself has announced that he will not run for office, but will play a "Sonia Gandhi-like" role, overseeing the party and acting as an advisory figure. This has not reassured party activists. They remember with anger the dismissal of their government twice in the 1990s on corruption charges, largely because of allegations against Zardari. To this day, party diehards refuse to believe that their leader Benazir (ousted as prime minister on each occasion) was in any way responsible, and blame her husband for all the sleaze.

These tensions will take some time to play out. Meanwhile, if the PPP does as well as expected on 18 February, the crunch will come after the elections when ministerial portfolios are allocated. Most observers expect Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the vice-chairman of the PPP, to be made prime minister. This respected Sindhi feudal baron was Benazir Bhutto’s faithful ally, but his weak and colourless character will make it easy for Zardari to manipulate him. As a result, party circles fear that Zardari will wield actual power, and he will use his nominees in government to dominate policy and decision-making.

The reputation for corruption that clings to Zardari - "Mr Ten Percent", in the routine media portrayal - will make him again an easy media target. More seriously, it will also provide the material for intelligence agencies to reprise a past role by destabilising an elected government. Bilawal is too young to play a responsible role in government, and Benazir Bhutto left no second-tier leadership capable of taking over and carrying the Pakistan People’s Party forward after her death. This vacuum makes it all the more likely that senior members of the party will refuse to accept directions from Asif Ali Zardari, thus precipitating a crisis within the party and fuelling even further its internal tensions.

In the month of Muharram, party loyalists are bound to make the point that their leader fell a martyr to democracy. The echoes of a tragedy that occurred some fourteen centuries ago can be heard loud and clear.