Whither Musharraf? news
20 February 2008

Far from Being redundant, Musharraf may well be Pakistan's best bet for ensuring stability in the future. By Prem Shankar Jha

Prem Shankar Jha The relief in Pakistan is palpable. The elections are over. They were not rigged. And the results have been 'normal' enough to raise the hope that Pakistan is returning to democracy at last. Reflecting this return of optimism, the Karachi Stock Exchange index jumped more than 400 points. But is Pakistan's long night coming to an end, or will the elections replace one set of problems with another?

In the euphoria generated by the elections, most Pakistani commentators believe that it is. They believe that the election results were, above all, a rejection of Musharraf and all that he had come to stand for. Almost all of his ministers were defeated. The Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam) which had broken away from the parent p[arty and joined Musharraf before the 2002 elections, was crushed. So was the Majlis Muttahida -e- Amal (MMA) the other component of Musharraf's tame parliament of the last five years.

Musharraf had declared that he would be happy to work with an elected government and to play God-father to its formation. But judging from the newspaper comments, very few  people in Pakistan  think that he has any further role left to play. While the PPP has said that it can live with him, Nawaz Sharif, whose party virtually swept Punjab and emerged second with 66 (out of 257declared) seats, has too deep, and justified, a grudge to settle for anything less than his exit.

Thus unless the PPP can somehow cobble together a majority without the PMNL (N) Musharraf will have to go.  All that remains therefore is to engineer an honourable exit for Musharraf, and have the new Parliament elect his replacement. We, too, feel it every time a general election brings a new government to power. But just as our problems do not end, Pakistan's are not likely to do so either. On the contrary, some of them may only be beginning.

The first one is "who will form the new government?". In theory, with 87 seats the PPP can cobble together a majority if it teams up with the Majlis Qaumi Muttahida (MQM) and manages to bring all but a very few of the independents and 'others' into the government.

But such a coalition would be extremely fragile because it would give too many people and entities the power to blackmail it. This would hardly provide the kind of government that Pakistan needs to meet the challenge posed by the Jihadis and retain the loyalty of the army as it fights them.

The only coalition that is capable of giving Pakistan a stable government with the capacity to face these challenges is one between the PPP and the PML (N). With Benazir gone some of the personal animosity that would have made such an alliance difficult has dissipated. But it is still difficult to see how they will resolve the issue of leadership and the division of portfolios, and  what will keep the two main contenders for power in Pakistan together for any length of time.

The second problem could be the stability of the PPP itself. Asif Ali Zardari is not the most popular man in Pakistan. In fact it is difficult to think of someone who is more disliked and distrusted. Benazir's son is too young to figure as an alternative. So why should the leaders of the PPP who kept the party going through its eight years in the wilderness hand it over tamely to either of them? Parallels with the Nehru-Gandhi family are misleading: none of Pandit Nehru's descendants earned the sobriquet of "Mr 30 per cent".

Third, if Musharraf is forced out and a new president is elected, how will the resulting, wholly civilian, establishment secure the obedience, not to mention loyalty, of the Pakistan army? The Pakistani army has ruled the country, directly or indirectly, for most of the past 52 years. Only the hopelessly na´ve can expect it to get off the throne and tamely start accepting orders from whoever is sitting upon it.

This is not an abstract question question about where power resides in a democratic  State. Pakistan is involved in two wars that threaten its very existence. The first is its unwilling involvement in the war against the Taliban. The second is the increasingly violent and brutal civil war against its own pro-Taliban mullahs and their flocks of Jihadis.

No matter how democratic the government that sits in Islamabad, it will need the full cooperation of the army to conduct these wars. But it is an open secret that the army regards a prolongation of the war against the Taliban as a supremely dangerous threat to itself because of the conflict of loyalties it is generating within its Pathan soldiers and officers and the resulting tensions between them and its Punjabi component. It is difficult to see how a civilian government will be able to order it to act indefinitely against its own interest.

Pakistan's future viability, no less, will depend upon both maintaining a stable political coalition in Islamabad and a harmonious relationship between the army and the civil establishment. A civilian president may be able to do the former better, but only Musharraf can do the latter. Champions of democracy and civil rights in Pakistan would therefore do well to tone down their anti-Musharraf rhetoric and realise that far from being redundant, he may well  be their best bet for ensuring stability in the future.

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Whither Musharraf?