By Najam Sethi
The Battle Royale has begun. The contenders for power are President Asif Zardari, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and dark horse Imran Khan. The non-neutral umpires are COAS General Ashfaq Kayani and CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Sharif has kicked off with a rally in Lahore. A jaloos rather than a jalsa suits him because he wants to use street power along with parliamentary opposition to unseat the Zardari government in November so that a new general election can be held within 90 days in February, at least a month before the March Senate elections.
The Senate elections are critical to Zardari's safety and longevity. As President, Zardari is immune from prosecution in the corruption cases against him at home and abroad. In the present parliamentary arithmetic, too, the PPP and its allies will get a majority and elect a Piplia as Chairman so that he can ascend the Presidency and protect Zardari if he is disqualified from it via a Supreme Court order at some stage of the game. A resounding win in the Senate will also send a powerful and positive signal to the PPP voter that he should turn out to vote his party back in power at the next elections.
Therefore Nawaz's strategy is simple enough. Whip up the street to take advantage of a political crisis triggered by a mass PMLN resignation from the National and Punjab Assemblies. Supplement this by nudging the Supreme Court to go for Zardari's jugular via any or all of the various cases pending against the President and senior government officials, including the prime minister. Once the politico-constitutional crisis reaches tipping point, urge General Kayani to step into the breach and show the door to the PPP and Zardari.
What happens next, however, can be problematic. Sharif will seek a neutral caretaker government to hold elections within 90 days and also hound the PPP to oblivion. But if the army chief and/or the CJP should have other ideas, either or both of them in tandem with a bloodthirsty media can hijack the caretaker government by postponing the elections on one pretext or another and launching accountability of all politicians, including the Sharifs. If that comes to pass, Sharif will be hoist by his own petard.
That is where Imran Khan comes in. He is holding a jalsa at the Minar-e-Pakistan. Perceptions are important. His wants to show that he has more support in the Punjab than Sharif so that the disgruntled floaters are persuaded to flock to him. He is also targeting both Sharif and Zardari. Only by seizing a chunk of the PMLN vote bank and a slice of Zardari's can he hope to arrive in Islamabad with any credibility. It would also suit him if elections are postponed by a neutral caretaker government until such time that the PMLN and PPP are both eroded by the Accountability Courts and he has sunk roots in the masses and built a party organization that is capable of pulling out the votes.
This scenario is a variation of the "Kakar Formula". In 1993, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Ghulam Ishaq fell out, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto pushed the crisis to tipping point by launching long marches and rallies and triggering resignations from the national and provincial parliaments. This compelled the army chief, General Waheed Kakar, to step in to pry them apart, then push them both out and set up a truly independent caretaker government with an efficient and non-controversial prime minister (Moeen Qureshi) who held elections in 90 days. But 2011 is not 1993.
In 1993, Benazir Bhutto was the only contender for power outside government. Today, Imran Khan is also trying to edge out Nawaz Sharif and his stance cannot be ignored. In 1993, the courts stood by passively and allowed the army chief to play a central role. Today, the fiercely independent and interventionist CJP is likely to seek a major stake in power play. In 1993, General Kakar was a non-controversial, apolitical army chief whose discreet and firm intervention could not be thwarted or misconstrued. Today, General Kayani's mishandling of foreign and anti-terrorist policy, coupled with the impropriety of an unprecedented extension in service, has diminished his stature in the armed forces and civil society and rendered any political intervention by him as controversial and problematic. Finally, in 1993, there was no dark overhang of foreign policy on Pakistan's internal troubles so that regime change was relatively smooth and inconsequential. But today, the country is facing the prospect of a conflict with the US and resurgent terrorist forces are waiting for political chaos in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to seize their opportunity to capture space.
Under the circumstances, it is not difficult for various players to band together, overthrow the PPP government and oust Zardari from the Presidency. But it will be very difficult for any or all of them to manage the unintended consequences of their power struggles.
Source: The Friday Times, Lahore