Old enemies seldom make easy bedfellows. This is what we see in Pakistan today. Now that President Pervez Musharraf, once the military strongman, has been forced out, the shaky alliance of the two most powerful civilian politicians, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, is unraveling. The euphoria over the defeat of Musharraf’s party in the February parliamentary elections has evaporated. The aim which had brought Zardari and Sharif together has been achieved. And their old hostilities are, once again, coming to the fore.
I have been an observer of Pakistan’s troubled and unhappy journey for over thirty years. And I must say that the sudden outbreak of hope after the victory for the democratic forces last February had not been seen for a long time in the country. The election result had clear messages from the electorate to those it sees as controlling the destiny of Pakistan. First, to the military, which has ruled the country for more than half of the period since independence in 1947; and which, under General Musharraf, subverted the judiciary above all. Second, to America, whose role in shaping Pakistan’s policies is seen by the electorate as unacceptable interference, exercised through the Bush administration’s proxy, Musharraf.
With Musharraf gone, Washington’s plans in the region are in disarray. Bush, in his final few months in the White House, seems to have decided to deal with Pakistan’s military chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, on matters of collaboration in the ‘war on terror’. After ruling Pakistan from the front for almost a decade, the military has had enough and retreated into the background. However, it continues to be the real center of power behind the cover of a civilian government that survives from day to day.
Earlier, I referred to Zardari and Sharif being old adversaries. So I should give a brief explanation of what lies at the root of their antagonism and distrust. They belong to very different political clans. Sharif was a protégé of the military dictator, General Zia-ul Haq. Under his martial law administration, the Sharif family enjoyed a dramatic rise in its business and political fortunes. Zardari belongs to the Bhutto clan by marriage to Benazir, who was assassinated in December 2007. Sharif is from Punjab, the most populous and wealthy province, which dominates the military hierarchy of Pakistan; Zardari from Sindh, a province with about half the population of Punjab.
In the 1980s, Nawaz Sharif’s political fortunes rose dramatically, starting with his appointment as chief minister of Punjab with the blessings of General Zia. Sharif’s rise continued after Zia’s death in a plane crash in 1988 and, two years later, he rose to be the prime minister of Pakistan. Zia, during his military rule, deposed and then executed the head of the Bhutto clan, Zulfiqar Ali, the elected prime minister of the country. Before Sharif and General Musharraf fell out with each other and Sharif’s government was deposed in a coup in 1999, it was Sharif who was close to the military establishment. The Bhutto clan was the outcast and Benazir and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, spent years in jail.
Memories of his overthrow, and subsequent exile to Saudi Arabia, by Musharraf have made Nawaz Sharif distrustful of the army. Zardari, acknowledging the army’s paramount role in the country’s politics, and encouraged by America, would like to work with it. The two are far more mature, suave and no longer as impetuous as they were in their youth. But that the political fortunes of one were made at the cost of the other remains a fact of history and difficult to forget.
Against that difficult-to-forget episode of history is the new reality of Pakistan today. The People’s Party led by the Bhutto clan, Benazir’s widower and their teenage son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is the larger party in Parliament and its character is truly national. The main stronghold of the Muslim League faction of Nawaz Sharif is essentially Punjab, the most important province, but not the whole country. It matters at a time when rival forces are pulling the country apart. Some represent Islamic fundamentalism, others secularism; some support a strong center while others demand greater provincial autonomy. Pakistan is more volatile today than at the time of its breakup in 1971, when East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh.
As Zardari and Sharif maneuver to consolidate their positions after years in the wilderness, Pakistan struggles with the insurgency that grows day by day and the economic crisis worsen. New questions arise. As Zardari embarks on his quest to become the next president of Pakistan, will he turn the post into that of a constitutional figurehead? Or insist on keeping the powers to dismiss the government, dissolve the parliament and meddle with the judiciary? Will the next president side with the all powerful military and cooperate with the United States in the ‘war on terror’ that caused the downfall of Musharraf? Or work to reduce the role of the army in the running of the country? Will the judges who were dismissed by Musharraf by illegal means be reinstated? Or the integrity of the judiciary is to remain in tatters? Above all, will the hopes, which the people of Pakistan pinned on the elected politicians, be realized? Or they will, once again, be disappointed. As these and other questions linger, the military will be waiting in the wings.
The above comment appeared in CounterPunch on 23 August 2008.