The politics of confrontation between the Zardari-camp and the Sharif-camp may not last long before they are forced to reach a political compromise or give way to some sort of third force to assume power
By Asghar Adnan Adil
After a brief interlude of compromise and stability, the perennial confrontational mode of Pakistani politics between the government and the opposition is back into play with both sides assuming their traditional role: the ruling party seeking absolute power by pushing the opposition to the wall and the opposition taking to streets to force premature general elections.
The way Pakistan People's Party has removed Sharifs' government in Punjab is just a re-play of its disdain to the opposition's government in a province in the previous tenures. In the first PPP government (1972-77), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did the same to the NAP-JUI government in Balochistan and NWFP. The opposition that had lent him a hand in negotiations with India at Simla and framing the first unanimous constitution of 1973 was pushed to the wall with its leaders put behind bars charged with treason. In his quest for absolute power, Bhutto could not tolerate chief ministers of his own party in Punjab beyond a limited time period. He removed two chief ministers -- Mustafa Khar and Hanif Ramay -- lest they become strong local leaders in their own right.
In her first tenure (1988) as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto dismissed the then opposition's government in Balochistan that was afterwards restored by the High Court. Benazir Bhutto had also made failed attempts to remove the then chief minister of Punjab Nawaz Sharif through her confidant Farooq Leghari. In her second tenure (1993-97), she could not get along with her coalition partner and the then chief minister in Punjab, Manzoor Wattoo, who was removed unceremoniously to bring a weak and pliable chief minister Arif Nakai. Still, all these actions could not save Bhutto's government from being dismissed unceremoniously before it could complete its full tenure in 1997.
The same game is on yet again. After a long cold war between PPP's governor Salman Taseer with PML-N's chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, the PPP is relying on governor's rule to win the support of the majority in the Assembly. In the fractious house of 371, a party requires 187 members to form the government. PML-N is the largest majority party with more than 150 members but lacks a clear-cut majority on its own. The PPP has 107 members and the PML-Q's strength stands at 58. More than 20 dissenting members of the PML-Q have formed a forward bloc and support the PML-N. The number of the dissenting PML-Q MPs was 30 when Shahbaz Sharif was in power. Thus, the PPP succeeded in breaking the strength of the PML-N supporters by imposing the governor's rule.
No major party in Punjab is in a position to form the government unless joined by the PML-Q and 12 independent members. Under the anti-defection law, no member of the party can vote against its party on two occasions: the election of the leader of the House (vote of confidence or no-confidence) and the money bill. Thus, the members of the forward bloc cannot vote for the PML-N's candidate against the party's decision.
The chances of PML-Q joining hands with the Sharifs are slim because of two reasons: (a)the Sharifs are not willing to accept its major demand that is to grant it the position of chief minister; (b)Punjab's 28 district mayors (nazims) belonging to PML-Q are dead against PML-N whose chief minister Shahbaz Sharif rubbed their noses in the dust by depriving them of all the powers whereas Governor Salman Taseer restored their authority and granted them more powers than what is required under the law. The local government elections are due in August this year and the municipal institutions are the bastion of strength for the PML-Q led by the Chaudhrys. The share of the PML-Q after the next municipal elections, that invariably reflect the manipulated results of the sitting provincial government, would be the part of the deal between the coalition partners.
After the unopposed senate elections of chairman (PPP's Farooq Naek) and deputy chairman (PML-Q's Jan Jamali), signs are that the PPP and the PML-Q may form a coalition in the Punjab. The chances of the PPP and the PML-Q forming a coalition in the Punjab are bright. In lieu of chief minister's position in the Punjab, the PPP may also offer the PML-Q federal ministries and positions of governors in smaller provinces. Whether the position of chief minister goes to the PPP or the PML-Q, the issue of Punjab's elected government may be resolved for the time being. The more significant issue, however, is the smooth functioning of the future coalition. Given the track record of PPP's coalition governments in the Punjab, the journey could be rocky and coalition shaky. In the past, not a single coalition of the PPP has completed its course including the one with the MQM in the 1988. The differences are bound to crop up and escalate in any coalition after initial few weeks or a couple of months as it had happened several times in the past.
On the other hand, the Sharif brothers have upped the ante by taking to the streets and supporting the lawyers' sit-in in Islamabad. PML-N's support to the lawyers' movement seems more politically motivated than principled as they would like the people to believe. Only two judges of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and Justice Khalil ur Rehman Ramday, and one judge of the High Court, Khawaja Sharif, have not taken fresh oath. All other judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf have either taken fresh oath or retired. The issue could be resolved politically by finding some middle path if the political motives were not involved.
Nawaz Sharif seems to be working for mid-term elections by mobilising public opinion on judges' issue through public rallies and agitation. The political history shows that the opposition's agitation paralyses the administration and does not allow it to complete its term. Sharif's calculation seems to be that he will win a majority vote if early polls are held. This is a repeat of what opposition parties -- IJI, PPP, PML-N etc -- have been doing all along in the 1990s until Gen Pervez Musharraf imposed military rule. In post-Zia period, the opposition parties have mostly never waited for five years to go into the polls and come into power. Instead, they have destabilised the sitting governments to force mid-term polls. When the country's internal security comes under threat due to increased agitation, it provides justification to the military generals to assume the charge to restore law and order and thus get into power. The politicians are treading the same oft-trodden path of mutual annihilation for the umpteenth time.
Smelling some sort of early political change may be the reason former President Pervez Musharraf has recently become politically active again. For the past few weeks, he has been meeting political workers and leaders in Karachi to form a political party. In Karachi, he has a political support base among Urdu-speaking community and large businesses. Along with the MQM, Pir Pagaro and Sheikh Rasheed are also in contact with him. Musharraf's political aspirations may or may not materialise but one thing is quite obvious: the political stability that was expected after Feb 18 elections and the coalition of two major parties, the PPP and the PML-N, has come to an end.
This time around, the risks involved in political instability are higher due to the Taliban-Al-Qaeda militancy raging all over the country in general and in the tribal regions in particular. The political agitation coupled with militancy scare the entire world that is fighting a war against terrorism. The world has a stake in the situation in Pakistan and can hardly afford a chaos where militants or radicals who believe in international terrorism could gain strength and use Pakistan's territory as safe haven. The diversion of attention and resources of state to address political agitation could provide the radical militants a free ground to operate. Thus, the confrontation between the Zardari-camp and Sharif-camp may not last long before they are forced to reach a political compromise or give way to some sort of third force to assume the power.