Pakistan’s new PM will have to dodge many minefields

March 31st, 2008 - 11:15 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Pervez Musharraf

(Commentary)
By Wilson John
The charade of democracy is now complete in Pakistan with the selection of a Punjabi feudal politician with a suitable religiosity (his family runs a Sufi mausoleum in Sindh) and a prison term on unproven charges of corruption as the new prime minister. The problem is not with the new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani. He is, by all accounts, a suitable candidate for perhaps one of the most challenging political positions in South Asia — to lead a civilian government in a country overshadowed by men in uniform.

Gillani has enough political pedigree, educational qualification, political acumen and experience, and party loyalty to keep the flock together. He might even play along with the army and the former general in the presidential chair, Pervez Musharraf. Gillani can also be given the benefit of doubt about his ability to deal with problems such as economic downspiral, resurgent radicalism and the omnipresence of the United States.

The problem lies in the political equation that awaits Gillani in Islamabad. It is dramatically different from the good old days of General Musharraf when there was the army versus everybody else. Now everybody else is pitted against everybody else. There are too many power centres for any premier to plough through, howsoever savvy and qualified he might be.

There are three constant factors in the situation that Gillani might have to grapple with. First, he will be heading a coalition of conflicting interests and ideology, led by a leadership which is over-ambitious but can only claim to draw support from a limited section of the people, mostly in Punjab and Sindh. He will remain a nominated prime minister and not one who has assumed the leadership of the country by leading a party to victory in the elections.

Gillani cannot assume the power and influence of an elected prime minister. So he will have Asif Ali Zardari on one side and Nawaz Sharif on the opposite, trying to guide him through a maze of political games aimed at self-gratification. Zardari, it is obvious, has no other interest but the interest of self and perhaps his son at a later stage. Except for a diploma that he thought was a degree, Zardari would not have hesitated in anointing himself as prime minister. To expect him, as many in India and Pakistan gullibly do, to assume the mantle of a statesman is grossly misplaced. Zardari has always remained a backroom boy, a facilitator skilled in political skulduggery that respectable political parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) kept behind locked doors.

Since Zardari has to wait out for the diploma-degree problem to be fixed (all problems in Pakistan can be fixed by a constitutional amendment as Musharraf has been doing with such abandon), he is bound to keep the coalition together, not take on the president and certainly not fall on the wrong side of the Punjabi army chief, Ashfaq Kiyani, who has made his intentions quite clear in the past few months.

Gillani, though he has suffered at the hands of Musharraf, might be more inclined to follow the Zardari line of no-confrontation but consolidation of the PPP in Islamabad, and perhaps in Punjab where partner Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) has a better hold. Gillani’s problem will be Sharif who has made it quite clear that his foremost task would be to somehow remove Musharraf through impeachment (impossible, given the political arithmetic of a hung National Assembly) or any other method to avenge his double humiliation. Gillani will have to prevent such an event while keeping Sharif and his men engaged in more fruitful matters of governance.

The second factor is Musharraf and the Pakistan Army. The former general by no means is a push over. He has considerable support in George W. Bush’s Washington. He is still (despite reams of reports contradicting the conventional wisdom in Capitol Hill about Pakistan’s role in the war on terrorism) a ’staunch ally’ in the US-led war on terrorism which (has always been) is now rapidly degenerating into a manhunt for Osama bin Laden or even his tail, before the Republicans go to the American public for a third term in White House.

Bush and his men know that if there is anyone in the world who can deliver these ‘goods’ to them, it is Musharraf and his army chief Kiyani. Without Musharraf, the Bush war on terrorism will lose the only leg on which it is running today. Musharraf has been too much of a politician for the past eight years to give up the fun and rush of politicking. For the moment, he holds more cards than any of the elected leaders, the most potent being Article 58 (B), which gives him the magic wand of dismissing any government that, in his opinion, is working against the national interests. National interest in Pakistan has always been closely aligned with personal interest. Since it is the prime minister who will have to deal with the president on political, economic and government matters, Gillani cannot afford to have a defensive and aggressive Musharraf on the opposite side of the table.

As for the army, Gillani can consider himself lucky that Kiyani is, for the moment, keen to carry out damage control rather than nurse political ambitions like his predecessor. Kiyani is therefore likely to be more of an ally to Gillani than his own coalition partners as long the new government keeps itself engaged in matters of governance and do not begin a war of confrontation with Musharraf. A political witch-hunt against Musharraf will certainly be viewed as an attack on the institution of the Pakistan Army and will therefore be countered with the strongest possible means even by those who have been critical of Musharraf’s actions last year.

The third constant factor is the US. The Bush administration has made it quite clear that it is desperate to take the war on terrorism to the next level before the year ends. This could mean the US spy planes (for the time being) targeting terrorist hideouts in Pakistan’s sovereign territory along the Afghan border. President Bush and his advisers have already made it clear that they would expect the new government to be as cooperative as the Musharraf-led government in the seven-year war on bin Laden, which, many believe, is reaching its climax.

Gillani, unlike Musharraf who ran roughshod over what the public thought, might find himself up against a rising domestic opposition to the increased and visible US presence and involvement in the tribal areas, a possibility which is more likely to happen in the next few months than ever. Gillani will have to first deal with conflicting views within the coalition itself before dealing with a sweeping antagonism against the US in the Muslim world, reflected in large measure within Pakistan’s public street.

If new Prime Minister Gillani manages to dodge all these minefields, he will have to deal with an emboldened legal community, which has threatened to take up the cause of the judiciary, led, ironically, by none else than PPP’s fiery lawyer and political leader Aitzaz Ahsan. Gillani’s adroit move to free the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary on the eve of his oath-taking was a clear signal that he just might spoil the game for Zardari and Sharif.

(Wilson John is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He can be contacted at wjohn60@gmail.com)

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