Musharraf, Highly Unpopular, is battling on Many Fronts and Needs to Change Course

By Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

Almost all groups and parties have strong reservations about the impartiality of the Election Commission that appears helpless in checking the excesses of pro-Musharraf political leaders. Musharraf has repeatedly dismissed these complaints

The January 10 suicide attack in Lahore is the latest reminder of the growing challenges to Pakistan’s political and civic stability and the inability of the Musharraf-led power structure in Islamabad to effectively address these challenges. The government can always present the standard explanation that there is no foolproof defense against a suicide attack. That may be partially true, but suicide attacks are not the only threat to Pakistan’s internal harmony.

Pakistan faces a crisis which has become acute with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and, especially, with the government’s inept handling of the incident. This present crisis will haunt the rulers even if general elections are held on schedule.

The roots of the present crisis can be traced to the government’s policy of seeking politically expedient solutions to hold on to power rather than working towards enduring solutions. Another strategy was the denial of the existence of the problem, or the refusal to accept responsibility. While such a strategy does not change realities, the government and its allies have preferred to live in a state of deception and delusion. Now, these policies are unraveling because the situation on the ground has become too intense to be kept under wraps.

Take the example of the counter-terrorism policy. The government’s policy of keeping three diverse elements on its side served its immediate needs but now it is faced with criticism from them all. These three elements are the United States; Islamic parties (i.e., the MMA) that often functioned as the political front for Islamic militants; and those in the official circles who sympathized with Islamic militants.

The government took some counter-terrorism measures to satisfy the Americans but did not push these measures to their logical conclusion in order to avoid total alienation from the MMA, which extended critical support to the government in certain domestic issues. Extremist sympathizers inside the establishment were also happy because the government was leaving enough space for the militants to function in a low-key manner.

This policy ran into trouble when the Lal Masjid militants could not be tamed through the intervention of militant sympathizers from the official circles. The government then used force to expel the militants from the complex. Militants based in the tribal areas and elsewhere viewed this incident as the beginning of a direct government assault. They were already fighting security forces in the tribal areas, and decided to launch retaliatory actions in settled areas. The Lahore incident shows that the militants retain the capacity to hit the Pakistani government any time at a place of their choosing. The direct confrontation with the militants also alienated the MMA and other Islamist elements from the government.

Military action in the tribal areas created tensions between the army and the civil administration in the tribal areas headed by the governor of NWFP. As the military authorities established their primacy and pushed aside the civil administration, political channels with tribal chiefs and the militants were undermined. This strained the relationship between the army authorities and the governor, who wanted to protect the autonomy of the civil administration as well as the political channels with the militants.

Another side of the present crisis is the growing economic pressure on the common people despite official claims of impressive economic development. Federal ministers and advisors continue to harp on about the resilience of the Pakistani economy. They cite aggregate data on economic growth, not realizing that such data, even if it is reliable, cannot save the government from the wrath of the people if their economic insecurities are not addressed. Official statements about economic well-being are meaningless for people hit hard by price hikes of food items, and who have to stand in line for hours to get wheat flour. Gas shortages and electricity outages add to the misery of common Pakistanis.

The irony is that the government refuses to take any responsibility for these problems. It accuses others — Islamic militants, political opportunists, greedy business people etc — of causing these problems. This persistent refusal to accept any responsibility for anything going wrong was most visible in the aftermath of the Bhutto assassination. Musharraf’s official spokesperson blamed an Islamist militant based in the tribal areas for the assassination, and also mentioned carelessness on the part of Benazir Bhutto. Moral of the story: the government cannot be blamed for Bhutto’s assassination, or anything that goes wrong in the country.

Yet another dimension of Pakistan’s current crisis pertains to the coming general elections. There have been numerous complaints about flaws in the electoral process from all opposition political parties. The PPP released a dossier on election malpractices prepared under instructions from its slain leader. The PMLN has also issued detailed data on pre-poll manipulation in favor of the pro-Musharraf PMLQ. These complaints include the partisan role of the president, the caretaker federal and provincial governments, district nazims and other local government officials, as well as the misuse of government personnel and resources.

Some international groups and independent Pakistani organizations have pointed out the flawed pre-election process that gave a clear advantage to the PMLQ. The latest comments from the Citizens Group on Electoral Process (CGEP) and the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) show that they find the pre-election processes to be deficient in many respects. Almost all groups and parties have strong reservations about the impartiality of the Election Commission that appears helpless in checking the excesses of pro-Musharraf political leaders. Musharraf has repeatedly dismissed these complaints.

Recently, the PMLQ published ethnically biased election advertisements in newspapers. Like the IJI in 1988, the PMLQ is endeavoring to play the regional card (Punjab vs. Sindh) in Punjab to sustain its appeal to voters.

These developments have to be examined against the backdrop of how Musharraf secured a second presidential term through a suspension of the Constitution, restructuring of the judiciary and restrictions on independent media. These moves greatly reduced Musharraf’s popularity within the political circles and civil society.

While Pakistan needs political reconciliation, Musharraf does not have enough credibility to initiate dialogue with the opposition, which considers him unacceptable. If the opposition parties, especially the PPP and the PMLN, win a majority in the elections, they will work towards restricting the role and powers of Musharraf. If they get a two-thirds majority, they are expected to seek Musharraf’s impeachment. Therefore, Musharraf cannot afford to lose these elections. However, it may be difficult for him to ensure success for his favorites. Given these circumstances, the present crisis is expected to persist in the post-election period.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defense analyst

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