Since staging the military coup in October 1999, Pervez Musharraf has muddled through all the important challenges that came his way. If the events of 9/11 brought him luck, his shrewd divide-and-rule tactics deterred a mass political movement in the past eight years. Can he survive the current political turmoil to lead Pakistan as a civilian president for another five years?
Perhaps no leader in Pakistan’s history has generated as much international interest in his leadership as Musharraf does. No surprise that since the emergence of the most potent challenge to his leadership from judiciary and civil society nine months ago, media analyses and public speculation abound with probable answers to Musharraf’s future. However, the country’s politics is so unpredictable and uncertain that perhaps even Musharraf may not fully know what sort of future awaits him.
How politics of Pakistan evolves in the coming months, or which direction political events before and after the next general elections take, will essentially provide the answer to the most important question of our time. It is very much possible that Musharraf succeeds in weathering the current political storm, just the way he has succeeded in the past. It is also very much possible that he eventually becomes the main casualty of the current political turmoil. Another probability may be that his survival may only be for a short term.
For now, however, everything hinges upon the outcome of the coming elections. If after removing his army uniform, Musharraf appeared weaker; after the lifting of emergency, he looks stronger. Such twists and turns in his power are likely to continue for some time to come.
Legacy of Emergency
Musharraf has regained strength, despite lifting emergency and reviving the Constitution, because during the period of emergency when the Constitution stood suspended, he has taken certain steps to empower his controversial civilian presidency—steps that directly hit the two entities from which the foremost challenge came to his leadership—the media and the judiciary.
For instance, emergency may have been lifted, but its legacy continues in the shape of stringent electronic media restrictions, such as the voluntary Code of Conduct that all of the private TV broadcasters, with the exception of one TV channel, have signed—and another directive issued recently by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), continues.
Likewise, the Constitution stands revived—but only after a dozen of its articles having been amended through a series of Presidential orders promulgated in the aftermath of November 3, the day Pervez Musharraf proclaimed emergency as Army Chief and issued the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) as President.
These constitutional amendments, the last ones made just on the eve of lifting of emergency, are meant to provide a legal cover to Musharraf’s moves to de-legitimize the mass of higher judiciary that refused to take oath under the PCO, and legitimize those who took the controversial oath. An additional purpose behind these amendments is to legitimize his assumption of civilian presidency for another five years, including the removal of a constitutional restriction of a two-year bar on a government servant for contesting the presidential office.
The parliament that comes into being after the January elections will need to indemnify whatever changes Musharraf has made in the Constitution, just as it had happened in 2002 with the then parliamentary approval of the Legal Framework Order. Likewise, Musharraf’s military predecessor General Ziaul Haq had obtained a parliamentary approval for his Revival of the Constitutional Order, 1985, during Mohammad Khan Junejo’s premiership the same year.
It is, therefore, extremely important that Parliament which is elected in the coming elections should have a two-majority of those political parties which are willing to legitimize Musharraf’s acts of declaring emergency and amending the Constitution in its aftermath. A coalition government between PML-Q and PPP at the Centre, with probable regional supporters such as PPP (Sherpao), JUI-F and ANP in the Frontier, JUI-F in the Frontier and Balochistan, and MQM in Sindh will help secure such a parliamentary majority. But will such an arrangement materialize?
Element of Continuity
Insofar as Musharraf’s power base is concerned, it has significantly eroded at least in public perception the day he reluctantly surrendered the post of Army Chief. The United States and its Western/Muslim world allies, because of Pakistan’s crucial role in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and the country’s tribal/Pashutn regions, would like Musharraf to continue as civilian president, even if domestic public approval of his leadership may have waned significantly. They seem to treat Musharraf’s continued stay in power as a civilian head of state as a stabilizing factor, one that would guarantee continuity in Pakistan’s counter-extremist/terrorist effort.
Since Benazir has publicly professed to meet US expectation from Pakistan to “do more” in countering extremism and terrorism, the Bush administration wises her to lead the government after the elections to achieve a more productive outcome in Pakistan’s frontline effort in the War on Terror. That is why the US and its Western/Muslim world allies prefer that all political parties should participate in the election, and they would most likely accept its results.
The army under its new chief General Ashfaq Parvaiz Kayani is also committed to combating terrorism. Given that, in the perception of the US and its Western/Muslim world allies, a coalition of sorts between the military and the so-called moderate political forces, realized through the elections, will not only help resolve the current political turmoil, it will also help the country fight extremism and terrorism more proactively.
The real structural political issue in Pakistan is the military domination of politics, which may take years and even decades to settle, given the deep political engagement of the military and its intelligence wing as well as the army’s penetration in the civilian domain during the Musharraf era. For now, however, public aspirations for democratic political change, as reflected by judicial activism and civil society surge led by lawyers and journalists since March 9, are singularly focused on Musharraf’s removal from power.
For his part, Musharraf will use the elections to secure a docile, hung parliament, and an obedient prime minister at home, while expecting consistent support for his leadership from foreign powers, especially the United States—a repeat of the same comfortable situation that he has become accustomed to in the past eight years. He may succeed in achieving this goal, but perhaps only temporarily.
This is because only a few relatively insignificant political parties, including Jamaat-e-Islami of Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Tehrik-e-Insaf of Imran Khan, have decided to boycott the election. The PML-N will participate in the poll, but without the Sharif brothers. Benazir had threatened to boycott the poll after the imposition of emergency, even calling for Musharraf’s resignation, but under American pressure and demand from party members, she decided to participate in the election.
The PML-Q of the Chaudhry brothers, with former Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Ilahi competing with Benazir Bhutto for premiership, will benefit from its stay in power for full five years since 2002. As stated before, a hung parliament, with a probable coalition arrangement between the PML-Q and PPP, and other largely regional parties such as ANP, MQM, PPP (Sherpao) and JUI-F should be an ideal election outcome for Musharraf. This could enable him to lead as civilian president without any potent challenge from the elected government or politicians in opposition.
For now, Benazir does not seem to take the issue of restoration of judiciary with the seriousness that it deserves, only Nawaz Sharif has made it a major issue in the election campaign. But since he himself won’t be able to make it to parliament, his vocal position on the issue will remain confined to opposition circles.
Like Musharraf, Benazir, provided she becomes the prime minister, may like to have a docile judiciary. For in case the higher judiciary under Chief Justice Chaudhry is restored, then it can be expected to re-consider the petition regarding the legality of National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which allowed her to return home from exile after charges of corruption against her, her husband Asif Ali Zardari and other PPP leaders were dropped in the guise of national reconciliation.
As stated at the outset, nothing can be foreseen for sue in Pakistan’s politics, given their extremely turbulent and unpredictable nature; we can only discuss probabilities, engage in guess work revolving around so many ifs and buts.
Given that, it is possible that the post-election reality may not be what Musharraf has in mind. After all, both Benazir and Nawaz have suffered equally in political exile during Musharraf’s era. Their decision to participate in the elections may only be a tactical move, as even Benazir may not, at the end of the day, be willing to work in a regime led by Musharraf for another five years.
The reason Benazir did not agree to include the issue of restoration of judiciary in the Charter of Demands, and Nawaz did not press on it so hard, may have been guided by their shared concern that adopting a hard stand may dissuade Musharraf to lift emergency. It may be possible that both the PPP and PML-N leaders refuse to accept the election results if they are rigged heavily in favor of PML-Q.
Musharraf would obviously like to have a considerable PML-Q clout in parliament to rule without significant political opposition from within the elected corridors of power. Having been associated with the PML-Q leadership, he would feel more comfortable for having them on his side after the election.
Presuming the mainstream political parties’ decision to participate in the elections is guided by tactical considerations, reinforced by consistent appeals by external forces—American, Turkish and Saudi leadership in particular—then they may launch a mass movement against the regime, if the election results do not match their expectations. Benazir has already threatened to lunch such a movement in case of rigging in the election.
Even if we presume Benazir accepts the election results, thereby legitimising whatever Musharraf did after imposing emergency, and takes over as prime minister, there remains a possibility of the consequent political dispensation collapsing within months. By temperament, neither Musharraf nor Bhutto would be able to stand each other. If the former is used to ultimate power, the latter aspires for the same as an elected politician.
A parliamentary system in which the office of indirectly elected president is stronger than a prime minister elected with popular votes is inherently unstable. Such a system is most likely to display greater instability with Musharraf as president and Benazir as prime minister, both well known for having uncompromising and egoistic personalities. If Musharraf could not get along with a rather docile prime minister like Zafarullah Jamali, how can he cope with a potentially assertive prime minister like Benazir? Their partnership, despite having the backing of Bush administration, won’t last even for a few months.
Any forecast that includes Benazir as prime minister is grounded in the so called US script, which may not be practicable, even if PPP emerges as a single largest party but short of the numbers to form an independent government. This is because the other players, including PML-Q, MQM, PPP (Sherpao), JUI-F and the nationalists may not allow the PPP to take the lead role and solely maneuver or manipulate the post-election scenario—which could be quite messy, with these parties surely having a fairly good number of seats in provincial assemblies to form their independent or coalition governments.
The post-election period will most likely be messy then. Even if we have a central government led by Benazir as prime minister, with Musharraf making a post-electoral deal with her by issuing another Presidential Order removing the constitutional restriction about her qualification for a third-time prime minister, the provinces may have governments opposed to the PPP-led rule at the Centre. For instance, the Punjab may have a PML-Q or a PML-N government. This would mean the recreation of a same type of political tussle between Punjab and the Centre, like the one that prevailed during 1989-90, when she ruled the Centre and Nawaz ruled Punjab, thereby making it impossible for her to run the PPP-led government in the Centre. The Army-led Establishment may then exploit the Centre-Provincial rift in favour of President Musharraf.
Concert of Politicians
Considering another possibility, it is a fact that two former prime ministers are back in the country, and it is also a fact that they have acted mostly in concert during the Musharraf era. This would mean that we might not see the same sort of politics of confrontation between the two mainstream parties, the PPP-P and PML-N, as it was the case during the 1990s when the army-led establishment would exploit their political conflict, by supporting one against the other and consequently causing the recurrent dismissal of elected governments.
The mainstream political leadership, primarily Benazir and Nawaz, may get unified against Musharraf whenever the opportunity arises in future. After all, even after the elections are held and a new government, whatever its coalition partners are, is formed, the potentially volcanic issue of restoration of judiciary under Chief Justice Chaudhry will continue to lurk in the background, and we simply cannot envision it to be washed away from the national political scene. Throughout the country’s history, it was the higher judiciary that had legalized the arbitrary acts of coup makers in the name of the Law of Necessity. This is for the first time in Pakistan’s history that the Army-led Establishment and the Supreme Court-led superior judiciary are at loggerheads.
Support from Army
As for the army’s support to Musharraf, it will depend upon how political events in the country unfold in the coming months. It is generally believed that the military top-brass is deeply concerned about the consistent erosion of army’s institutional prestige in the eyes of the people, partly because of its frontline role in combating extremism and terrorism on behalf of an external power, the United States and partly because of negative public perceptions about Musharraf’s amoral and arbitrary conduct in office.
Musharraf’s close affinity with a US-sponsored counter-terrorism campaign is only one of the reasons for the consistent erosion of his personal legitimacy or worsening of his personal credibility crisis. The domestic political conduct of his regime, the growth in inflation, unemployment and poverty during his eight-year rule, and the gap between State and Society are other, more important, reasons.
The Reverse Scenario
Following the elections, if there is mass opposition to Musharraf’s presidential leadership, or if the whole political game-plan that Musharraf is trying to translate into actual reality through these elections collapses for one reason or another, then we may see the reversal of pre-emergency situation, including the restoration of judiciary under Chief Justice, the lifting of all curbs on the electronic media, the re-holding of a general election that is free, fair and transparent.
But, then again, this is a rather hypothetical, idealistic political scenario which, given Pakistan’s track record, may not materialize. However, in case such a possibility is realized, then it would be difficult for Musharraf to maneuver the system and make a political comeback. In that case, it would be preferable for Musharraf to spend his days in political exile, most probably in Turkey, where he spent his childhood. Despite erosion of his domestic public standing, the Turkish world offers him significant space for a lifetime stay.
To stay in Pakistan, Musharraf needs the same sort of security protection as available to him currently as head of the state and former army chief. After all, he has chosen to stay in the Army House, even after removing the uniform, principally to save him from another assassination attempt by extremists.
The American Factor
If we presume the US to be another factor which matters in Pakistani politics, its response to the issue of Musharraf’s future—like that of the new army leadership—will also depend upon what shape the political situation takes in the coming months. It is apparent that the Bush Administration wants to work with Musharraf and will prefer to see Benazir on his side after the election as third time woman prime minister of a Muslim country.
However, the creation of such a moderate front against extremists and terrorists will be problematic as long as the political system of the country does not accommodate people’s growing democratic aspirations at a time when they are exposed to all sorts of views through the powerful medium of private TV channels. Recent judicial activism and civil society’s surge have in essence been a reflection of people’s democratic aspirations, a factor that cannot be confused with terrorist expressions of the extremists.
Access column at weeklypulse.org