There are two strands to the state of unrest in Pakistan. At one end is terrorist implosion with suicide attacks raising the toll to more than 2,000 deaths in 2007 so far. On the flip side, a political battle for supremacy rages between the principal players: President and former chief of army staff Pervez Musharraf, mascot of the army, and a resurgent political class now represented by the dominant duo of yesteryears, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
With geopolitical and regional interests entwined in the internal struggle, the surfeit of news and views in a media-rich universe has confounded the man on the street. Ironically, the Indian establishment—the most affected by happenings in Islamabad—has been silent. A rational snapshot of the situation is thus necessary to overcome the fog of analysis.
To grasp the illogic of events, take a brief look at Pakistan’s power structure. A vibrant democracy means a balance between stakeholders of the state, executive, judiciary, legislature and civil society. Pakistan’s apex structure has three main constituents: the president, the national assembly and the Supreme Court. The army has an invisible hand in administration through a network of serving as well as retired officers placed as ministers, governors, advisers and heads of government institutions. The President as head of state and government has the power to dissolve the assemblies under provisions of the Constitution, subject to approval by the apex court. The court is known to apply what is known as doctrine of necessity based on the need for stability.
A pliant judiciary, when the President and the assemblies were facing elections, was a primary need for continued survival of the present clique. An activist chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was thus replaced by Abdul Hameed Dogar and concurrently, media and civil resistance quashed by imposition of emergency through a provincial constitutional order (PCO) on 3 November. Expectedly, a tractable judiciary approved Musharraf’s re-election as president as well as the PCO, stating, “Sufficient corroborative material produced by the respondents justifies taking extra-constitutional measures by the chief of army staff and the President.”
With Musharraf in the saddle as President, the battle now moves on to the proposed elections on 8 January. The political class is the weakest link in Pakistani society, comprising of feudal lords of Sindh and Punjab or neo-elites as Imran Khan. Self-interest has been their primary motive for entering politics. Deal-making is the hallmark of Pakistani polity with the hidden hand of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) extending into internal politics as well. Thus it was head of the ISI Lt. General Nadeem Taj who stayed back in Saudi Arabia most recently, purportedly to negotiate with Sharif.
The spoiler in what could be a straightforward battle between Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League is the present ruling dispensation, Pakistan Muslim League Qaid, led by the Chaudhry brothers who has provided Musharraf political legitimacy so far. Lacking popular support, they would try their best to upset the political apple cart. Thus a situation in which there is a fractured electoral verdict could be possible and whether the pendulum swings towards Bhutto or Sharif is difficult to predict at this stage.
However, what is certain is the continued relevance of Musharraf in his second avatar as president, the army brass and the ISI. An unstable polity would provide them the right levers to manipulate a coalition in place owing allegiance to the khaki. Al Qaeda, Fazlullahs, Wazirs and Mehsuds of Swat and Waziristan will perhaps have the last laugh as a military seeped in political intrigue will seek compromise, rather than challenge them in combat despite pressure from the US.
Meanwhile, global risk managers, while not predicting a doomsday scenario, have certainly turned bearish on Pakistan, at least in the near term.
Rahul K. Bhonsle is a security analyst and editor, South Asia Security Trends, a monthly journal. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org