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Tactical games

While Pakistan's mainstream parties return to the wheeling and dealing of the 1990s, Imran Khan has decided to exploit popular sentiment

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times ,April 29, 2011

he Pakistani political circus continues amid new alignments and new alliances. President Asif Zardari and his prime minister have reached out to the party he had called the Qatil League after his wife Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The Q-League is ready to join the ruling coalition so that it can prepare for the coming elections while in power and also save Pervez Elahi’s son Moonis Elahi who is currently under house arrest and being tried.

Police, patwaris and public servants, if used correctly, can play a crucial rule in the elections, and that is why the top PML-Q leadership is ready to make a deal with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) despite internal opposition that could hurt its ranks. Almost all parliamentarians carry some sort of a price tag anyway, and therefore the majority might decide to follow their leaders.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) are likely to decide to continue to remain in power while also continuing to leverage for their demands. The Awami National Party (ANP), which has come to power after almost three decades, seems to be content with what they have, with the apparent support of the PPP as well as foreign friends.

But all the parties in ruling coalitions in the centre and the provinces received less than one fourth of the legitimate votes cast in the 2008 elections. Almost 45 percent of the 80 million votes had turned out to be bogus, which means the present political systems rests on the strength of less than 20 percent of Pakistan’s legitimate voters.

But the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) seems increasingly isolated. It nurtures dislike, if not contempt, for the MQM. Nawaz Sharif does not trust the army and vice versa. The Sharifs are also estranged with the ANP, and that only leaves them with the possibility of joining hands with Jamaat-e-Islami and JUI-F – the parties they had allied with against the PPP under ISI patronage in the 1990s.

The Sharif brothers do not seem to be in the best of health and it is not clear if they are ready to take up responsibilities as the head of the government.

Ostensibly, what worries the PML-N the most is the emergence of a new right under Imran Khan. And they have assigned to Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to question the ISI’s role in politics as well as deal with the MQM.

Chaudhry Nisar’s tirade against the ISI in the National Assembly reflected a strong concern in the N-League that the ISI’s support to Imran Khan – through right wing groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and Tehreek-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwat – will cost them crucial conservative votes in the next elections.

The PML-N’s other fear is the impending PPP-PML-Q alliance which could hurt the party in central Punjab.

Pakistani politics have returned to the political wheeling and dealing of the 1990s when the prime motive of all stake-holders was to upstage their rivals regardless of the cost.

The military establishment is clearly pleased with Imran Khan’s anti-drone campaign and his show in Peshawar. On the face of it, Khan is driven by the concern for national security and sovereignty, but it is not clear why an Oxford-educated liberal cricketer-turned-politician would lean towards religious political groups (almost all of whom practically condoned the murder of governor Salmaan Taseer and minister Shahbaz Bhatti.)

All these groups condemn the US (although families of some reside in the US) although top military and civilian leaders acknowledge that drone attacks are important. Bob Woodward mentions in his book Obama’s Wars President Zardari’s favourable comment on the drones. Some army officials do speak privately about the utility of the weapon system. It seems that Imran Khan – desperate for power after having been in politics for two decades – has willingly decided to exploit popular sentiment for political leverage. Officially, both the government and the army cannot stop drone attacks for a number of reasons, and they have therefore left it for Imran Khan to make some noise.

Imran Khan and his supporters have also threatened to stop NATO supplies via Khyber Pass. They have not been able to foresee the economic impact of the move. There are about 6,500 trucks involved in the transport of NATO goods through Pakistan, employing at least 20,000 people. Several thousand others benefit indirectly from this cargo traffic, all the way down to road-side restaurants and auto workshops.

Rather than having negotiated a comprehensive long-term and all-encompassing deal with the US and NATO for the cargo transit, Pakistan under former president Pervez Musharraf ended up with no formal arrangements, without thinking about any political or economic impacts of the move. That is why occasional outbursts get some popular support. But these protests are only useful for short-term political gains. They hurt Pakistan’s national interests in the long run. A long-term solution to the complex issue needs a dispassionate long-term strategy. 

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk