The South Asia Channel

AfPak Behind the Lines: Pakistan’s political scene

This week’s AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Pakistan’s complicated political landscape with Joshua T. White. 1) Both Pakistani and Indian papers carried news last month that Pakistan’s former president and military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf would be announcing his return date to Pakistan in September, as well as the manifesto for his party, the ...

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

This week’s AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Pakistan’s complicated political landscape with Joshua T. White.

1) Both Pakistani and Indian papers carried news last month that Pakistan’s former president and military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf would be announcing his return date to Pakistan in September, as well as the manifesto for his party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML). Why the long buildup? And what kind of support does Musharraf’s party (and the man himself) still have within Pakistan?

Pervez Musharraf has a well-deserved reputation for chronically overestimating his own popularity. With 281,987 Facebook friends ostensibly clamoring for him to step back into the limelight, he seems confident that his moment is approaching. It isn’t. The formation of the APML is gaining traction as a news story only because the current Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government is seen as faltering in the wake of the flood crisis; because Musharraf is (wrongly) believed to have residual political backing from the U.S. and U.K.; and because the Pakistani press, driven by a glut of cable news channels, is eager for political gossip.

Nearly everything about Musharraf’s new venture is quixotic. While he clearly has lingering support both inside and outside of Pakistan, he has no semblance of a political constituency. His last electoral venture, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) (PML-Q), was not a mass party so much as an instrument designed to court political opportunists. While the former general may possibly recruit a few prominent regional politicians, such as the elderly Pir Pagara, he is unlikely to gain backing from power brokers, or from the military, which has given no indication of welcoming his return to politics. (On the contrary, they act nervous at the prospect.) As if this weren’t enough of a hurdle, Musharraf faces a complex and inhospitable legal environment back in Pakistan — one which has delayed his return, and from which the judiciary is not likely to grant him reprieve. All this suggests that the APML is unlikely to become more than a bit player in Pakistan’s chaotic political scene.

2) How has the flooding affected Pakistan’s political landscape? Will the widespread perception that the government has not performed well on aid distribution cause an electoral shakeup? And how has it affected the relationship between Pakistan’s civilian government and the military?

While it seems almost crass to talk about politics in the wake of such human tragedy, the reality remains that Pakistan’s floods have produced clear political winners and losers. The civilian government, with its somewhat halting response, has reinforced a public perception that it is ineffective, and ill-equipped for the task of governing. The military, by contrast, has projected an image of competence. In fairness to the Zardari administration, no civilian government could possibly have been prepared for what unfolded; the army was naturally better equipped to deal with the immediate rescue and relief efforts, just as the civilians will be indispensable in the reconstruction phase that follows.

Still, politics is often less about facts than expectations. Since both the civilian government and the military have thus far played to type, the political impact of the floods may well be limited. With the next national elections slated for 2013, it would take more than sheer unpopularity to dislodge the government: it would take an unexpected breakdown of the coalition, or intervention by an increasingly activist Supreme Court, or a decision by the army to cut short the government’s term. This being Pakistan, the latter option is always a possibility. But for now, General Kiyani and the military establishment seem quite content to let the PPP-led government run its course, faltering as it may, and absorb public frustration about what will certainly be an agonizing road to recovery.

3) Given the killings in Karachi of both Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leaders and members in Karachi, and the continued targeting of ANP leaders and relatives in Peshawar and its surroundings, how stable is the governing coalition in Pakistan? Are the local disturbances creating tension on the national level or in parliament?

The Pashtun nationalist ANP has had a rough year. On policy issues, it has a lot to crow about: it spearheaded the renaming of the North-West Frontier Province as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (though it accepted the "Khyber" prefix only reluctantly), and it saw the ruling PPP government meet many of its fiscal and legal demands for provincial autonomy by way of the revised National Finance Commission award and the historic 18th amendment to the constitution. But it has endured a spate of targeted killings by Taliban groups, slumping popularity in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, blame for an inadequate response to the floods, and an upsurge in violence against the Pashtun community in Karachi.

This latter conflict has raised particular concern that the national PPP-led governing coalition — of which both the ANP and MQM are critical members — may founder over the growing turf war in Pakistan’s largest city, which has taken on electoral, ethnic, and sectarian religious dimensions. Violence in Karachi has long been a feature of Pakistan’s urban scene, and in the latest spate of killings no side is blameless. In recent days, the MQM has also hit hard at the PPP (with whom it is competing more aggressively in Karachi), suggesting that an army coup would not be unwelcome. Much of this is simple grandstanding, as the ANP and MQM both have compelling patronage incentives to stay in the coalition. But the MQM’s mercurial leader Altaf Hussain remains a wild card. He, and the activist Supreme Court, constitute perhaps the two most unpredictable players in Pakistani politics today, and deserve close attention as the Zardari government seeks to shore up its political standing in the wake of the nationwide floods.

Joshua T. White is a Ph.D. candidate in South Asia Studies at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement.

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