As the time for the election draws near, the tribal frontier is getting hotter with each passing day. Suddenly rumour mills are active that the new Army Chief is bypassing Musharraf in his interactions with the Americans and is going to allow them some foothold in Pakistan. Americans are now claiming that the Afghan resistance is on the wane and the “level of violent activity in the eastern provinces is down about 40 per cent.”
Simultaneously, there is an analysis by the Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General James Cartwright, that the "character of the fight in Pakistan has changed to some extent, and it is more focused inward." And he is reported to be raising a series of questions in this regard: “Is it a threat that the Pakistanis are ready to handle? Do they need help? Do they need training help? Do they need other types of help? That's what we're trying to assess right now.”
Against this backdrop, the Pakistan Army's decision to push into Waziristan and fight Baitullah Mehsud's forces has made people believe that more than Musharraf, General Kiyani, the Army Chief, is eager to prove to the Americans that he can be relied upon. Analysts have even tried to interpret it as the first major indication that Kiyani might be attempting to establish his credentials as an army chief who is made of sterner stuff rather than being pushed into the sidelines as Musharraf's protégé.
This school of thinking holds that Kiyani may not like to be known as a second Musa Khan who withered under the wings of President Ayub Khan. He has rather started behaving like General Yahya Khan – who like Kiyani also belonged to the Baloch Regiment – during 1969-70.
Earlier Kiyani was portrayed in the Pakistani media as the Army Chief who sent his soldiers to lay a wreath at the grave of Banazir Bhutto and later met her husband privately. Even before that, Daily Times had reported that in his very first speech to trainee Army officers in Quetta, he had asked them to value public opinion and never meddle in politics. American journalists have even gone further and vouchsafed for his democratic credentials after he addressed his corps commanders for the first time in January 2008 (the first such address without Musharraf at the helm in the last decade). In this meeting, he reportedly made an assertion that ultimately the will of the people and their support was 'decisive'. This set off a slew of analyses that claim that with Kiyani in the saddle, Pakistan may have a smooth return to democracy after the elections.
Politics is a game of glorious uncertainties. There are indications that Kiyani may not like Musharraf to tamper with the ongoing political process and may want the elections to be free and fair. However, it is not clear if he would like to intervene at this juncture if Musharraf were to try to manipulate the electoral process in favour of PML-Q and MQM. The crucial question that begs an answer in these circumstances is: Does Kiyani have the support of the corps commanders at the moment? At this juncture, the answer is in the negative; primarily because, key positions are still manned by Musharraf loyalists.
Rumours about Kiyani's quiet defiance tend to throw up an argument that he might be seeking to cut into Musharraf’s external support base by demonstrating to the US that so far, his predecessor was half-hearted in his efforts against the militants in the tribal areas. At the same time, his pronouncements in favour of the "will of the people" and democracy are seen as calculated moves to eat into Musharraf's depleted support base at home.
Musharraf's increasing exposure to the Western media is being interpreted as a move to engage primarily his critics in the West and show that even now everything in Pakistan is well under his control. He has also claimed that he was not too much of a dictator and would like to withdraw if the newly elected assembly did not want him. There are also reports that he has sent feelers to London to talk to Shahbaz Sharif, and is seeking to patch up with Nawaz Sharif.
All these reports suggest that the force of circumstances has induced moderation in the most powerful actors on Pakistan’s political stage. The lawyers' movement (which started in January 2006) has certainly rattled all prospective dictators in the country. Moreover, Pakistani civil society is more active today than ever before. It is showing signs of increasing restlessness at the moment and in the event of rigged elections things may become very bad for the ruling establishment.
Musharraf has pledged free and fair elections but has resisted demands for the formation of a national government to oversee the elections. It is well known that Musharraf's survival depends on denying his opponents a two thirds majority in the elections. Musharraf has taken some very astute steps to minimise his loss in the elections. He has banned all opinion polls, has asked the media not to indulge in anti-government propaganda, and has canvassed the people to support PML-Q. All this shows that he is desperate to get for his followers more than one third of the National Assembly seats to protect the constitutional revisions he has initiated thus far. Success in this regard will automatically defang his political opponents.
If he can ensure this, the only threat to his authority then would be the Army Chief. And if Kiyani were to assert himself against Musharraf, in case there is a popular stir after the elections, there is a possibility that the Army may even split up into two opposite camps. That would be the real doomsday situation for Pakistan. However, one would expect that both Musharraf and Kiyani would not be that imprudent to allow their differences to snowball into a major crisis for the country.
While the Americans might be seeking to promote Kiyani, pitting him against Musharraf is certainly not in their interest at the moment. However, if the coming elections prove all analysts wrong and strengthens the hands of anti-Musharraf forces, the US would need Kiyani more than Musharraf. In that situation, a subdued Musharraf with an Army Chief ready to give democracy a chance may be good news for Pakistan. Alternately, if the political forces, so far fragmented and disunited, seek to depose Musharraf, it could lead to a crisis. A grossly rigged election may unleash forces too difficult for both Musharraf and Kiyani to handle.
If one takes into account balanced inputs from Pakistani analysts, the most probable scenario on the horizon, even with free and fair elections, is that of a hung assembly pulling in different directions. This may strengthen Musharraf's hands and remove the fear of an assertive Army Chief. In which case, the responsibility for bringing democracy back to Pakistan will devolve on the politicians. They will have to decide whether they and Musharraf deserve one another. In any event, Pakistan looks headed for an uncertain future.