Monday, December 31, 2007
What's Next for Pakistan
So who'll replace Benazir Bhutto as the candidate that is on the right side of Musharraf, the United States and popular opinion?
No, not Nawaz Sharif. At least, not in time for the January 2008 elections. It would take an enormous amount of reconciliation to bridge the Sharif's distance from Musharraf and the United States. Such a reconciliation is possible but unlikely in the given timeframe. For now, Nawaz Sharif will have to remain content with being the biggest political leader…in the opposition.
There are two front-runners, as of now, and one wild-card. The PML (Q)'s Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, former chief minister of Punjab province and Makhdoom Ameen Fahim, Benazir Bhutto's deputy and caretaker leader of the PPP all these years, have the best shot at the post of prime minister. The wild-card, of course, is Aitzaz Ahsan, a member of the PPP, but too closely identified with the lawyer's struggle for the restoration of the sacked chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Why Pervez Elahi and Ameen Fahim? Well, because they meet the three criteria better than anyone else. Pervez Elahi will perhaps be acceptable to the United States which needs a Plan B, but his close association with the Musharraf regime won't endear him to Pakistanis outside the Punjab province. But since the election is about political engineering and not really about securing a popular mandate, Pervez Elahi comes out as a strong contender for the prime ministership. His stewardship of Punjab over the last few years will not harm his chances with the powerful commercial interests of Pakistan's industrial heartland.
Ameen Fahim has two question marks between him and the prime ministership. Will the PPP survive and hand him the mantle of leadership? How much of the military establishment's political engineering weaken the PPP's seat tally? It is conceivable that the PPP under Ameen Fahim can ride to power on the back of a sympathy wave, like the Congress Party under P V Narasimha Rao in 1991 after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. But unlike in Narasimha Rao's case, Pakistan's election is unlikely to be free and fair.
Indeed, it is possible that the military establishment will rig the vote to ensure that the parliament is divided between these two formations—the PML(Q) having decided to stay out—so that the Islamist parties, or the MQM can play kingmaker. Not unlike what was in place for the last few years.
Aitzaz Ahsan is the wild card. Technically he is a PPP leader, but his identification with former chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry makes him unpalatable to Musharraf, and at least so far, to the United States. But he has his supporters, has acquired a lot of popularity and shares the kind of outlook that made Benazir Bhutto popular with the United States. Ironically, to rise to power he will have to compromise with Musharraf—that means jettisoning the cause of the judiciary and the reason for his rise in public esteem.