Pakistan’s political crisis

January 3, 2011

gilani kayaniNever in the history of Pakistan has a democratically elected civilian government served out its full term and then been replaced by another one, also through democratic elections. It is that context that makes the latest political crisis in Pakistan so important.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is scrambling to save his PPP-led government after it lost its parliamentary majority when its coalition partner, the  Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), announced it would go into opposition.  A smaller religious party, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), already quit the coalition last month.  If the government falls and elections are held ahead of schedule in 2013, the opportunity for Pakistan to have a government which serves its full term will be lost. 

The prevailing view among political analysts appears to be that the government is now less likely to last until 2013, even if it manages to survive in the short term. But given the peculiar nature of Pakistani politics, where the military exerts a powerful role behind the scenes, no one is predicting anything with any certainty.

The main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has shown little enthusiasm for forcing an early election which could propel his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) into power at a time when the country faces huge economic and security problems. Better to wait it out until an election in 2013 that his PML-N is seen as likely to win. Having been ousted in a coup in 1999, Sharif also remains deeply suspicious of the army, and he has ruled out supporting any moves against the government that might be orchestrated by the military. Giving democracy time to bed down, by allowing the government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to serve its full term, could set a useful precedent for a future PML-N administration. 

The army itself has shown no inclination to run the country directly, and it already controls the issues that matter most to it – foreign and security policy.  It has barely disguised its frustration with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari — who also leads the PPP — particularly after he travelled to France and Britain last summer while the country suffered from devastating floods.  But that does not translate into wanting to see Sharif back in power. According to a U.S. embassy cable released by WikiLeaks,  army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani made it clear to U.S. officials that “regardless of how much he disliked Zardari, he distrusted Nawaz (Sharif) even more”.

Another option, possibly more palatable to the army, would be an alternative coalition of smaller political parties which might be able to challenge both Zardari and Sharif in the next election. But that will take time to fall into place, possibly right up to 2013, if at all.  Don’t rule anybody out, however unlikely they seem now, as part of an alternative coalition. That includes former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who set his sights very firmly on 2013 when he launched his political party in London in October.

A couple of final points. We don’t actually know for sure whether there is a groundswell of popular support in favour of ditching the current government, though there is, as Nadeem Paracha argued in Dawn,  a great deal of populist sloganeering on television channels about the state of the country.  “Akin to a black comedy is the fact that most TV anchors and hosts that go on spouting all these concerns – unemployment, inflation, drone attacks, ‘good governance’, Aafia ki wapsi (jailed Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui)  etc. – are sitting pretty with hefty salaries and perks, and, what some would suggest, an agenda to safeguard the interests of some of the most anti-democracy classes in this country i.e., the military, the mullah and large sections of the upper and middle-classes.”

We also don’t know for sure whether having a civilian government complete its term would necessarily be good for democracy. And to be fair there are many in  Pakistan who question whether democracy is even the right system for the country; others who complain that the PPP is not particularly democratic given its dominance by the Bhutto family dynasty and the feudal elite.  

But we can say for sure that there is rather more at stake in this political crisis than merely the survival of a government or even the implementation of policies.   It could have implications for how the country is run which will endure for many years.

 (Reuters file photo of Gilani and Kayani)


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