Benazir Blinks!

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The Bhutto family functions on the premise that most Pakistanis have very short memories, unfortunately they are quite right. Ms Benazir was the first major politician to welcome the military regime’s dispatching of Mian Nawaz Sharif on Oct 12, 1999, the “honeymoon” went on for sometime. The PPP Chairperson finally realized that the one-sided “love affair” was going nowhere, the military regime being in no mood to drop corruption charges against her or her husband, Asif Zardari. Frustrated in the hope that on the basis of “an enemy of an enemy is a friend”, the military regime’s animosity towards Mian Nawaz Sharif would force political compromise with her. Ms Benazir did a smart U-turn, transforming her politics into virulent opposition. A consummate political animal, she gave the appearance of keeping back channels open to the COAS, mainly to shore up the morale of her increasingly demoralized supporters who were expecting some relief in Nawaz’s ouster. When the military regime denied any such contact, she declared “war” on the Pakistan Army.

For the past eight months Ms Benazir has been assailing the defenders of this country, synchronizing her attacks on our men in uniform in line with India’s contention, i.e. Pakistan Army is to blame for cross-border terrorism across the LOC, the attack on Indian Parliament, harbouring and sponsoring terrorism of all kind, etc. To retain the loyalty of her party workers while in self-imposed exile, she has kept a barrage of misleading propaganda going, the latest being that she would return to Pakistan by special aircraft on August 14 and fight the elections despite the election laws. This brinkmanship may be brilliant politically, the fact remains that other than being forced to knuckle down to the existing reality of the military regime’s ground rules for politics in Pakistan, she has succumbed to internal pressure within PPP forcing her to nominate Makhdoom Amin Fahim as the head of a newly created Parliamentary entity of the PPP. Her choice as rubber-stamp was Aftab Shahban Mirani. Winking at the military regime for sometime, she then tried international pressure to stare them out, Ms Benazir has now blinked.

Ms Benazir’s father exploded the myth in 1970 that Pakistan was the preserve of veteran political forces, mostly feudals, and there was no room for Johnny-cum-lately upstarts in the Pakistani political process. Thirty years later his daughter is trying to desperately to project another myth, that PPP will sweep the other parties like chaff in the October elections. PPP is a major national party, about that one should not have any doubt but it is far from being the political force it was in the 1970 elections, every subsequent elections has seen it lose ground, dropping to its lowest ebb in 1997. More importantly, one does not see young faces in PPP, only the old guards remain, but the Jiyalas do remain faithful! In 1993 a trio of generals placed in critical slots under the Moin Qureshi caretaker regime manipulated PPP’s forming of a coalition to make the government. Has anyone yet explained how and why the MQM and its 14 seats were made to boycott the NA elections in 1993, and why in 18 critical urban-rural seats, the electoral position changed after midnight from favouring PML (N) to PPP. I hold no brief for Mian Nawaz Sharif but the fact remains that PML (N) was cheated out of making the government in 1993.

While Ms Benazir represents the most potent of political forces in South Asia, the family personality cult, the PPP continues to have very fine and capable politicians who can win their individual seats in their own independent capacities. Within interior Sindh, PPP remains a very strong political entity and will certainly win a majority of the seats in both the NA and PA elections. In the Sindh urban area, they are still no match for the MQM, which incidentally was the only Party to conduct Party polls in an organized and transparent manner. It was a treat to watch the democratic process, one hopes that their militancy will remain within bounds. The Sindhi nationalist forces cannot be brushed away, including PML (N), PML (Q-A), PML (F) etc they also have safe family seats which they will certainly win whatever the circumstances. As far as NWFP and Balochistan is concerned, PPP is in real danger of not even getting a single seat for the first time in its history. NWFP is estranged PPP leader Sherpao’s territory and while his faction of the PPP may not get the majority, alongwith either the ANP or PML’s other faction, they can cobble together the Provincial Government. Punjab is the real battleground and the appointment of Shahbaz Sharif in place of Mian Nawaz Sharif as President PML (N) has drastically changed the political dynamics. PPP depends upon individual political heavyweights to win their own constituencies, particularly in Southern Punjab. The PPP was relying on the PML remaining fractured among ego lines, for sometime it was a political reality, with Shahbaz around it will not remain so.

What PML (N) should have done in 1999 (and even earlier) they have done now, Mian Nawaz Sharif making way for his brother. A very nice man, Mian Sahib was a disaster as a Sher Shah Suri, known more for his making the GT Road but who really conceived and implemented a superb administration. As Chief Minister Punjab, Shahbaz did an excellent job and thus has a potent vote bank. The problem is that the major leaders are in PML (Q-A), these individual personalities will win their own constituencies. Shahbaz will have to toe a fine line between family preferences and political realities. While it is too early to erase the bad blood, particularly with the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, the PML factions will do well by having seat adjustments, primarily on the format that none of the factions would oppose MNA/MPA elected to the 1997 Assemblies. On those seats rendered vacant because of attrition due to electoral losses, disqualification, deaths, etc there could be give and take. With seat adjustment PML will be by far the strongest grouping in Punjab. With the help of ANP-PPP Sherpao combine in NWFP and MQM in Sindh, they can easily form the Federal Government and the Governments of Punjab and NWFP. The PPP will certainly have the best chance of making a government in Sindh but they will be hard put to do so in the face of determined challenge from a coalition of MQM, PML factions, the Sindh nationalist parties and independents.

Important political forces like Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Quami Mahaz (MQM) will get significant number of seats, enough to make them king-makers but not enough for them to be kings themselves. Of the new comers, Imran Khan’s Tehrik-I-Insaf and Farooq Leghari’s Millat Party will have votes but not many seats, having some political nuisance value. Imran’s gray area is a substantial number of youth between the ages of 18 and 26 can be seen supporting him, how they actually vote on Election Day is another matter, can Imran convert his charisma into seats? This applies to the urban rather than the rural youth. Having no political heavyweights can be an advantage because our youth is turned off from the veteran corruption-laden political machinery of yesteryears.

One cannot write off the religious parties despite their Afghan and subsequent failure to pass muster in the streets when the chips are down. They will always have NA seats, in the NWFP and Balochistan Assemblies they will be able to be part of the ruling governments. In a close contest they may even make a difference in the Centre.

According to Ms Benazir she returns in four days time on 14 August, is this another one in her series of bluffs or is it for real? For reasons of “national security”, corruption, etc the military hierarchy is not enamoured of her. The mood among the rank and file, particularly the younger lot is rather more hostile, they have been facing the enemy on the borders while she has been staunchly pro-Indian on every conceivable media channel for the past several months. Ms Benazir does not have a corner on becoming emotional on various issues, Sepoy Nathu Khan once aroused on issues of patriotism can quite be dangerous, to the point of being lethal.

The next 60 days are likely to be very interesting and given Pakistan’s political history we have not seen the last of the twists and turns.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

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