You are here

Pakistan’s Political Future: Plus ça Change…

Ashok K. Behuria is Senior Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • October 30, 2007

    Pakistan is getting ready for the next elections amid many uncertainties. Musharraf is caught between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam) [PML-Q]. Benazir is back in Pakistan without any express assurance that she would have a third term as Prime Minister. Chaudhury Shujaat Hussain is undecided about Musharraf’s reconciliation proposals and is hobnobbing with Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) [PML-N]. Within the PPP, Benazir is soft on Musharraf while veteran party leader Aitzaz Ahsan is baying for the General’s blood. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) is torn from within. Qazi Hussain wants total confrontation, while Maulana Fazlur Rehman wants cautious accommodation. Anti-Musharraf combines like the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) and the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) are dead. The Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) is sitting on the fence. Every political actor that counts appears tentative about its next move.

    The Judiciary is proactive. However, it is torn between the temptation to take on the Army and the fear of provoking into taking a radical step that will undermine its importance. It is sitting in judgement over many issues, which include, the return of the Sharifs, the legality of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) and Musharraf’s re-election as president in uniform. The Judiciary’s verdict could set Pakistan on a roller coaster, if it seeks to trump Musharraf’s re-election. Moderates are advocating a peaceful transition. Hardliners are crying for radical transformation through judicial activism.

    In the face of such an uncertain transition to democracy, the results of three interesting opinion polls have come out which provide some clues about popular perceptions of the political situation in Pakistan. The first by the International Republican Institute (IRI) of the US Republican Party came in seven days before Benazir landed in Pakistan. It said that Musharraf, Benazir and Nawaz had popularity ratings of 21, 28 and 36 per cent, respectively. This was significant, as Musharraf had a 63 per cent approval rating in a poll IRI had conducted in September 2006. Another interesting turn was the massive opposition to Musharraf’s re-election in uniform (74 per cent). This is interesting, since in February 2007, just before he moved against the Chief Justice, more than 50 per cent had approved of his re-election as President.

    Yet another poll conducted by ACNielsen Pakistan for weeks before Benazir’s return, but whose results were announced on October 20, suggested that Musharraf, Benazir and Nawaz had popularity ratings of 21, 27 and 21 per cent, respectively. The latest poll by Outlook India says that the attack on Benazir has not kicked off any sympathy wave in her favour.

    Musharraf’s popularity has thus plummeted since the CJ episode. While Nawaz Sharif’s has risen since his aborted trip back home in September, Benazir has found it difficult to go beyond the 20-30 per cent mark for a long time. And her deal with Musharraf has depleted his support base among the moderates. This is the tentative position of the three prominent personalities in Pakistan.

    Now, let us take a brief look at the electoral prospects of the different parties ahead of elections, as almost 78 million people get ready to elect 272 members of the National Assembly and 577 members of the provincial assemblies.

    The political situation as it obtains today gives Benazir’s PPP a distinct lead over the others in rural Sindh, while urban Sindh is likely to side with the MQM. Benazir has some committed followers in Punjab, and given the PPP’s past performances, it may, in the most favourable scenario, win about 10-15 per cent of the popular vote in the province. The rest of Punjab will be divided between pro-Musharraf and pro-Nawaz forces, with Jamaat-e-Islami likely to secure a share of 4-5 per cent of the popular vote.

    The previous local elections in August 2005 showed the MMA’s declining influence in the frontier province. But with state action against the militants in full swing, the MMA — especially the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman) [JUI-F] — is likely to retain its hold in the province. Popular disenchantment with MMA may shift marginally towards the nationalists and thus the Awami National Party (ANP) may stage a better performance. The PPP and PML-Q are unlikely to demonstrate any electoral surprise, while PML-N may show some gains because of its anti-Musharraf image and its sympathies for Islam.

    The popular sympathy in Baluchistan is most likely to be divided between the JUI-F and the Baluch nationalist parties. If the nationalist forces come together, which does not seem impossible now, they may score an unprecedented electoral success in the province. If the PPP were to form an alliance with the nationalist forces, the combine will be even more formidable.

    In all likelihood, Pakistan is heading for a hung assembly with the existing political groups and alliances. The uncertainties outlined above can change the direction of Pakistani politics — towards or away from democracy — but not the electoral prospects of the political groups seeking power through the ballot. One cannot of course preclude the possibility of wild cards like assassinations of prominent political leaders, which may change the situation dramatically.

    The only institution that will survive all uncertainties is the Pakistan Army, with or without Musharraf. It is the only professionally organised political force in Pakistan that has been perpetually in power and constantly seeking more power at opportune moments. With Musharraf at the helm, it has substantial support among the moderates. Though Musharraf’s approval ratings have plummeted, he still carries almost 21 per cent support, which is quite considerable. But for his ‘unforced errors’ in recent months, he would still be at the top. Even his worst critics admit that his hands are clean and he is more open to criticism than any of his predecessors in uniform. The only chink in his armour seems to be his overriding zeal to stay in power.

    In the worst case scenario of the Army dumping Musharraf because of his shrinking popularity and nation-wide opposition to him, it is hardly likely to lose anything by getting back to the barracks and calling the shots from there. As for Musharraf, he has obliged the US much and for long and is sure to be rewarded with a comfortable retirement in the West.

    However, with the political forces hopelessly divided, it is highly improbable that they would come together to challenge the Army and force it back into the barracks. Rather, they would like the Army to stay on as a prop and as an insurance against any ambitious politician who could pose as a despot. The Army, on its part, will never be in a position to rule directly for long. It will seek collaborators, fragment the political forces and usher in an imperfect democratic system that could again open the door for it in the future. The roots of Pakistan’s future lie in its past. The more things change, the more they would remain the same.