The candidate of the Pakistan Peopleís Party, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, was delivered a warrant for his arrest on grounds of a pharmaceutical scandal even as he was filing his nomination papers for the post of prime minister. This curious timing was hardly a coincidence. The current political situation in our neighbouring country is being played out, in the words of Karl Marx, first as tragedy, and then as farce. It has the potential to turn into tragedy again.
Raja Pervez Ashraf, the last-minute and second-best choice for prime minister, has been elected to that office with 211 votes in parliament over 89 for the main opposition party candidate from the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif. Ashraf, born in 1950, inherits a troubled relationship between the three major wings of the Pakistan establishment: the civilian government of which he is a member, the army which is all-powerful, and the judiciary that is engaging in a long and bitter constitutional feud with President Asif Ali Zardari and the civilian government. Many predict another clash in the almost immediate future because the judiciary wants the authorities to reopen a corruption case against Zardari in Switzerland. This is the very issue that had led to the downfall of Ashrafís predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, on the charge of contempt of court. The charges against Zardari relate to the 1990s when his wife, Benazir, was the prime minister. He has always claimed that such charges were politically motivated, pointing out that he had served eight years in prison without ever being convicted.
Gilani was convicted for contempt by the supreme court of Pakistan in April for his refusal to reopen corruption cases against Zardari, and was later disqualified from holding public office. Ashraf is hardly likely to pursue the corruption cases against Zardari, and he will argue, as did Gilani, that under the law the president has immunity from prosecution. It is likely that the next show-down will not be long in coming. Ashraf is himself dogged by allegations of taking bribes and corrupt practices relating to power projects when he was water and power minister in the years from 2008 to 2011. If the judiciary deigns to give the new prime minister enough breathing space, he will probably make a massive effort to improve the electricity situation in Pakistan in order to remove some of the stigma attached to him. If he succeeds, this may give Zardariís PPP a better image in the run-up to the next elections, which are due early next year but may be brought forward to this year ó making Ashrafís tenure both troubled and short.
The judiciary seems intent on bringing down Zardariís government, while the PPPís aim is to serve out as near to its full term of five years as possible. If it achieves that objective, it would be the first time ever that a civilian administration has fulfilled its term of office, and if the perception among the electorate gains ground that Zardariís party has been victimized by the judiciary and the military, the PPP could benefit electorally. Instead of dealing with the grave challenges confronting their country, Pakistanís powerful elite have chosen to contest one anotherís political space. The three-cornered fight between these institutions of Pakistan is taking place against the background of relations with the United States of America being at an all-time low, a fraught economy, severe power and water shortages, and the depredations of armed militants who have enjoyed the protection of both the army and the civilian authorities.
The traditional dominance of the military has been supported in the past by the judiciary that has tamely acquiesced in the subversion of the constitution by coup-making generals, and is now also colluding with the army in cutting the politicians down to size. In this, accusations of corruption always come in handy, since the number of such cases runs into the hundreds and embrace all the political parties. These allegations, though rarely brought to any conclusion in the courts of law, have served to bring down every single civilian government Pakistan has ever elected well before its constitutional life-span. With the present Zardari government just six months short of the finishing tape, and elections due in early 2013, it has become a matter of prestige both for Zardari and his opponents in the army and judiciary. If the government cannot be brought down before it serves its term, it will create a new precedent with negative implications for the military. First, prolonged and stable civilian rule is able to dent the political influence and image of the army as the final arbiter of the nationís destiny ó apart from striking at its widespread money-making activities, and second, the PPP has its political roots, power base and financial support in Sindh, which diminishes the position of Punjab that dominates the army recruitment and top brass, the civil bureaucracy, and constitutes the biggest vote bank. This makes the army almost a natural enemy of the PPP and this hostility is magnified when it is seconded by an activist higher judiciary. After being dismissed by Pervez Musharraf, the reinstatement of the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, by Zardari was both belated and reluctant, which turned the chief justice into an implacable enemy of the president.
The Pakistan military is widely known to be playing a double game in Afghanistan, protecting jihadi terrorists in the Northern and Tribal Areas and sheltering Osama bin Laden. At this time when the sway of the army over Pakistan should have been loosened, the judiciary has come to the armyís rescue more than once. It did nothing to unravel the truth surrounding bin Ladenís lengthy presence in the shadow of the military establishment. It responded with unusual alacrity in investigating suo motu a mysterious memorandum that invited the US to intervene to prevent a possible coup after bin Ladenís killing. This inquiry resulted in the dismissal of Zardariís ambassador in Washington, and the controversy continues. The supreme court has doggedly pursued the former prime minister, Gilani, as a proxy for Zardari and forced his resignation. The rules and conventions by which the institutions of a nation should perform their separate responsibilities have been blurred, and democracy, even Pakistan style, is again in danger of imploding. To compound matters further, the chief justice is implicated in allegations of bribe-taking against his son, and it is suggested that the governmentís hand could be involved in this. Chaudhry was initially quite willing to sit in judgment in that case, but recused himself only after a public outcry.
Not for the first time, New Delhi will be asking itself, ďWhither Pakistan?Ē Probably the best answer will be somewhere between Panglossian optimism and Cassandran pessimism: Pakistan will continue to muddle along, as it has done in the past. The US, at least until the withdrawal of its combat forces from Afghanistan, will continue to try to forge a transactional partnership with Pakistan. At the next election, whether this year or the next, Zardariís PPP and Nawaz Sharifís Muslim League will again be the main contenders. Imran Khan, the darling of the Indian media in spite of never having evidenced any amicable sentiments for this country, has strangely disappeared from view over the past few months, and there is speculation that the army may have distanced itself from him. Dependence on foreign assistance for both the budget and development will not lessen. For their own separate reasons, China and Saudi Arabia will support Islamabad, which will enable Pakistan to cock a snook at Washington from time to time and curry favour with the public. The attitudes of the army, the politicians and the people of Pakistan towards the Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and other terrorist groups will remain unchanged. Pakistan will enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities vigorously. Water disputes with India will assume disproportionate importance to cover up domestic mismanagement. Whichever party wins the next election, politics will be noted for inefficiency, unpredictability and opportunism. And the army and the judiciary together will continue to pressurize the politicians at every point of vulnerability.