Pakistan’s political weather? Prospects poor for moderates

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A supporter of the Islamist  political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) attends a rally opposing US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Karachi. Photo: Reuters /  Akhtar Soomro

Liberal and secular democratic elements in Pakistan will find themselves further besieged in 2018 as radical Islamic forces look poised to make inroads against moderate parties in July’s general elections. Political observers are predicting a hung parliament in which newly formed radical Islamic parties prop up a mainstream coalition partner.

For the story to be any different, the electoral map has to change considerably: Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) would, for example, have to bag more seats in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) stronghold of Sindh province, or in the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)-dominated Punjab.

Some observers believe that a weak coalition government actually suits Pakistan’s ‘deep state,’ which will be content with a biddable prime minister.

In the 2013 national assembly elections, the PML (N) amassed 176 seats, including women, minorities and independents, in a house of 342. The PPP bagged 42 seats, and PTI 35. Smaller parties who won multiple seats included Jamiat Ulmai Islam (F), with 14 seats, the Pakistan Muslim League (F), with six, and and Jammat-e-Islami (JI), with four.

Upheavals in Punjab or Sindh could, as alluded to, scramble the numbers on July 15. But much stands to happen on Pakistan’s political stage before then.

For one thing, National Assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq does not see the present assembly completing its constitutional term. “What’s happening now has never been witnessed before and I hope the National Assembly completes its constitutional term but I don’t foresee it happening,” he said on a TV talk show, adding that he felt something strange was about to happen.

He may have been reacting to the PML (N) government’s failure to pass into law a Constitutional Amendment Bill pertaining to the re-drawing of constituency boundaries in line with the latest census results. But his overall nervousness about the recent run of events in the country seems well justified.

Former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Photo: Wikipedia

Pakistan’s former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, has praised Hafiz Saeed, leader of the extremist Milli Muslim League. Photo: Wikipedia

Several developments point to Pakistan’s political trajectory. One is the military establishment’s sudden support for the mainstreaming of two radical parties: Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (MML) and Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA).

These groups have since performed unexpectedly well in by-elections, outpacing  mainstream religio-political parties. In one by-election (for the NA-120 constituency) they even drew a considerable number of votes away from PML (N), terrifying the latter.

In response to the Islamist onslaught, mainstream conservative religious parties have revived a previous electoral alliance: Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). The five main parties comprising MMA include the aforementioned JUI-F and JI and they will contest the election on a joint platform and under the same flag, looking to secure a maximum number of seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh.

In a television interview, meanwhile, the retired military dictator Pervez Musharraf praised Hafiz Saeed, declaring himself a supporter of LeT, a militant outfit he actually banned in 2002 when he was in power.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a renowned columnist and liberal voice in Pakistan, believes Musharraf’s change of heart is based on the assumption that if allowed to enter mainstream national politics, militant organizations will channel their energies away from violence towards peaceful politics.

The chain of events described seems, however, almost too perfectly calibrated not to have been planned and executed with the express purpose of forcing the PML (N) out before elections to the upper house (Senate) that are due in March.

The ruling party was plunged into crisis on July 28, when the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified the sitting prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, from holding public office, and it has been steadily losing its grip on power ever since.

All of this points to the conclusion that there is a game in the offing – with the establishment’s backing – to oust the PML(N) government and install a caretaker set-up before March

The party’s leadership has taken a defiant stand, accusing the judiciary and military establishment of hatching a “greater plan” to oust Nawaz on frivolous corruption charges – the case against him was ignited by revelations contained in the Panama Papers.

There have also been other difficulties to contend with. A case against Nawaz’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who is chief minister of Punjab, in relation to the Model Town massacre of 2014, has been re-opened. It has long been alleged that Shahbaz had a role in ordering police to gun down 14 activists from the centrist Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) party.

Significantly, the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari – who had never previously raised his voice against the deaths in Lahore – has extended a hand of support to PAT chief Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri. Other opposition figures, including Syed Mustafa Kamal of the Pak Sarzamin Party (PSP), a splinter group of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and various PTI politicians, have likewise visited ul-Qadri to assure him of their support.

All of this points to the conclusion that there is a game in the offing – with the establishment’s backing – to oust the PML(N) government and install a caretaker set-up before March.

True democracy has never really been exercised in Pakistan – not even under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the man who declared, as he established the PPP in the early 1970s, that absolute power should rest with the people, but who soon succumbed to religious forces and ended up behaving like a quasi-Islamist.

Elections in 2018 will deliver a pro-establishment, obscurantist and ultra-conservative administration. In other words, nothing new.

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