by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 4, Rajab, 1434)
Electing the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz faction) has simply brought the same old party that had twice before failed to deliver. Amid growing allegations of vote rigging, Pakistanis seem to have opted for merely change of faces.
Will Nawaz Sharif’s third term as prime minister of Pakistan be any different than his first two stints that were cut short, one by a president accusing him of corruption, and the other by an army chief that refused to relinquish his post? His supporters, including his youngest daughter Maryam who is a great admirer of her father (the feeling is mutual), insist he is a changed man. She says he has become a “thinker.” His supporters say Sharif has matured politically. Only time will tell whether any of this is true.
The May 11 elections that gave Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), a near majority in parliament, must have felt like sweet revenge against General Pervez Musharraf, the man who had so unceremoniously overthrown him in the October 1999 military coup. Musharraf is currently under house arrest and faces charges of treason and murder. A few hours after the polls closed indicating that his party had secured the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, Sharif announced that he would not seek revenge. Speaking from the balcony of his Lahore mansion, he told cheering supporters that he would like to work with all parties to get Pakistan out of its dire straits.
Musharraf may be the least of his worries. Sharif has to deal with the harsh realities of Pakistan. The list of problems facing the country is long: shattered economy, terrorism, US drone attacks and the so-called war on terror, corruption, non-payment of taxes by businessmen, politicians and other rich people, electricity and gas shortages as well as massive pollution and degradation of the environment. Further, Pakistan’s infrastructure is crumbling and the health and education systems are in desperate need of a massive infusion of funds. Then there is the overbearing military that has stayed out of direct interference in the political process recently but its itch for dictating policy is strong. On the external front, Pakistan has to deal with threats from the Taliban as well as the planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan, its impact on Pakistan and relations with the US and India.
This is a tall order for any leader regardless of the mandate he has been given. Every election raises great expectations among people but they soon turn to despair when people realize these will not be fulfilled. Those in power have to buy the loyalty of many people: parliamentarians, journalists, businessmen and others, to stay in power. Parliamentarians are the worst of the lot; they offer themselves to the highest bidder, otherwise they would bolt making the ruling party vulnerable to a no-confidence motion in parliament. This is referred to as lota politics in Pakistan. Already the 27 independent candidates in the National Assembly have made a beeline to Sharif’s Raiwind residence outside Lahore pledging “allegiance” to the new boss. Their chances of mischief are reduced this time because the PML-N with 126 seats (137 are needed for a majority) does not need too many of them.
Sharif faces two major challenges immediately: the economy and terrorism. Interestingly both are related to the US and Saudi Arabia. With the former, Sharif has had an uneven relationship although he has indicated he wants to work with the US because Pakistan cannot survive without American handouts. He has very close relations with the Saudi ruling family. The Saudis are the principal financiers of most terrorist acts in Pakistan, as indeed elsewhere. This was even stated in a secret memo by the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as per WikiLeaks documents in 2010, “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e Taiba] and other terrorist groups,” said a secret December 2009 paper signed by Clinton. Her memo urged US diplomats to redouble their efforts to stop money from Persian Gulf states reaching extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Clearly, such efforts have not been successful. Instead, the US has now openly embraced the terrorists as witnessed in Syria. The petro-dollar pipeline has also been opened to the Levant with US blessings.
Sharif has made no secret of his links with the Afghan Taliban and he is touting these as one of his strengths to help bring peace in Afghanistan. Senator Tariq Azeem of Sharif’s PML-N told the BBC on May 12 that the new prime minister is someone the US should trust. He is willing to help the US achieve peace in Afghanistan since he has good relations with the Afghan Taliban.
This was also evident during the election campaign. The Taliban had vowed to target three secular parties — the Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — viewed as hostile to them. Of the three, the ANP bore the brunt of such attacks since it is based in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province where the Pakistani Taliban are also strong. The Taliban, however, have attacked others as well. Even the Jamiat ul-Ulama-e Islam (JUI-F) that won all its seats from KP and Baluchistan provinces was not spared. A few days before the election, its rally in Doaba, KP province was attacked. At least 10 people were killed. Many observers found this surprising since two days earlier a meeting between the JUI-F and Taliban elders had struck a deal to support each other. For some unknown reason, the Taliban changed their mind a day later and attacked the JUI-F rally declaring that democracy was against Islam and they would not allow election rallies or voting to take place.
Cities and towns between Hangu and Parachinar (on the Afghan border), as well as the surrounding tribal areas of Aurakzai Agency in KP province are known Taliban strongholds. Fighters are recruited by local mullahs from Togh, Kahi, Doaba, Karbogha and all the way to Parachinar and the surrounding tribal areas, and then sent to Afghanistan. Almost all these mullahs are Saudi-trained and financed or have studied in madrasahs financed by the Saudis. Upon returning from Afghanistan, these battle-hardened Taliban indulge in crimes against local people. Stealing at gunpoint, kidnappings for ransom and other criminal activities are rampant. Local criminals have turned themselves into Taliban by growing beards and keeping long hair. Ordinary people are fed up of being terrorized but find no help from the authorities. They are left to fend for themselves.
Sharif has vowed to tackle the economy immediately and has promised to present a program within the first 100 days. He has a penchant for grandiose projects. During his first two stints as prime minister, he built several motorways, new airports and launched the yellow cab scheme in Punjab. His younger brother Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister of Punjab gave away free laptops to students and launched the Metro Bus scheme in Lahore. The latter is seen as an enormously expensive project that serves a tiny percentage of the urban population in Lahore. Its real purpose was to gain publicity and garner support. It seems to have worked. Will Sharif launch similar mega projects in his third term or tackle real problems like electricity and gas shortages that have severely affected economic production, not to mention making life miserable for ordinary people? The country has been losing $12 billion annually in lost production due to lack of power.
On the political front, some members of the PML-N have suggested that they should deprive Imran Khan’s PTI of forming the government in the KP province. Political horse-trading has already begun with Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the JUI-F, a shifty character who has been making contacts with other parties for coalition building. The PTI while gaining the largest number of seats is still short of an absolute majority in the KP assembly and so has to enter into political alliances if it wants to form the government. With 35 seats, it has a better chance than any of its nearest rivals — PML-N (12 seats), JUI-F (13 seats) and Jamaat-e Islami and Qaumi Watan Party with seven seats each. There are also 14 independent members in the KP assembly.
If Imran Khan’s PTI forms the government in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, it would have to deal with the many serious problems the province faces. It will be a major test for an inexperienced party and will have great impact on determining its future. If it is able to solve some of the problems of the toughest province in Pakistan, the PTI will have secured a position in the future political set up of Pakistan. Failure in KP would be the kiss of death and a one-way ticket to oblivion.
The massive turnout in the election — more than 60% according to the chief election commissioner, Justice (retired) Fakhruddin Ibrahim — was the direct result of Imran Khan’s efforts. The cricket-star-turned politician had energized the youth and women urging them to vote. While Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf did not achieve the breakthrough by sweeping the old forces aside that people had been led to believe, the party did relatively well. It won 29 seats in the National Assembly, a few seats behind the former ruling party, the PPP that has been largely confined to its home province of Sindh. In the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa (KP) province, the PTI wiped out the ruling Awami National Party (ANP) that had claimed the mantle of representing the Pakhtuns. In the outgoing assembly, the ANP had 48 seats; it was reduced to mere five in the just elected assembly. In the National Assembly, it got just one seat, that of Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the last ANP Chief Minister.
The PPP that had ruled the country for five years was decimated in the National Assembly. It was reduced to 31 seats from 124 in the previous assembly. Perhaps the best political move by Nawaz Sharif was to let the PPP complete its full five-year term in office thereby exposing its incompetence and corruption. Asif Ali Zardari, dubbed the accidental president, is a venal character. He is thoroughly corrupt and has a knack for wheeling and dealing. This enabled him to survive in the snake pit of Pakistani politics for so long. The PPP may be finished as a “national” party. Pakistanis would be no worse off for it.
In addition to the plethora of political parties, essentially one-man parties, a large number of “independent” candidates has also won seats in the national and provincial assemblies reflecting the personality-based nature of politics in Pakistan. These people are able to secure benefits grossly out of proportion with the single seat they each occupy in parliament, but given the fractured nature of politics and individuals willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder, independent members are able to secure huge personal benefits.
While elections will not solve all or even most of Pakistan’s problems, they did bring some cheer to the masses. Many leading political figures were consigned to oblivion. These included former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, and PPP stalwarts Chaudhry Mukhtar Ahmed, Samina Ghurki, Qamar Zaman Kaira, Firdous Ashiq Awan and Manzoor Wattoo. ANP leaders Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, Iftikhar Hussain and Afandiyar Wali also lost. The latter got only 2,000 votes from his hometown of Charsadda, which is the base of the ANP. The PML-N’s Mehtab Abbasi was also swept by the PTI tsunami in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa although Imran Khan’s party did not do as well in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab.
As Sharif settles into the comfortable prime ministerial mansion, there are several positive developments on the horizon. The army chief, the Supreme Court chief justice and Zardari’s term as president all end this year. Sharif will have an opportunity to put his own mark on these appointments. Two years later, elections will be held to the Senate, currently dominated by the PPP. This will also open up more political opportunities for him. Even if he is unable to do much for the economy, although there is no reason why he cannot, politically he is better placed.
It will be interesting to see whether he can work it out this time or mess it up as before.