Even as newly elected legislators were sworn in at Islamabad’s imposing national assembly amidst tight security on 17 March 2008, Pakistanis remained unaware who their next prime minister is going to be. The reason for this uncertainty is that the leading member of the coalition formed after the elections of 18 February, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has yet to name its candidate.
Among openDemocracy’s many articles on Pakistan politics in the Pervez Musharraf era:
Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, ““Pakistan's permanent crisis” (15 May 2007)
Anatol Lieven, “At the Red Mosque in Islamabad” (4 June 2007)
Paul Rogers, “Pakistan’s peril” (19 July 2007)
Maruf Khwaja, “The war for Pakistan” (24 July 2007)
Shaun Gregory, “Pakistan: farewell to democracy” (29 October 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, ““Pakistan: the power of the gun” (7 November 2007)
Iftikhar H Malik, “Pakistan: misgovernance to meltdown” (19 November 2007)
Saskia Sassen, “Lahore: urban space, niche repression” (21 November 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, “Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto” (28 December 2007)
Fred Halliday, “The assassin’s age: Pakistan in the world” (28 December 2007)
Maruf Khwaja, “Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy” (9 January 2008)
Furhan Iqbal, “Pakistan and violence: memory, shame, and repression” (18 February 2008)
Behind this confusion lies a power struggle within Benazir Bhutto’s party. Before her tragic assassination on 28 December 2007, the PPP leader left a will in which she named her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as her successor as party chairman. However, in a meeting of senior PPP figures immediately following her assassination, it was decided that the couple’s son, Bilawal, would be co-chairman alongside his father. But as the role of the 19-year old Oxford undergraduate is currently more symbolic than real, Zardari led the party to its election victory, and now commands authority within it.
At the same meeting, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a feudal landlord from Sindh province, was named the party’s candidate as prime minister. This decision merely confirmed Benazir Bhutto’s wishes, as she had relied on Fahim to manage PPP affairs during her long exile abroad, and Zardari’s decade-long incarceration on corruption charges.
This decision too has proved far from straightforward. In the last few weeks, rumours began to circulate that Fahim was no longer the frontrunner. One reason being given is that Zardari fears that Fahim might not be as pliable as some other possible candidates. The PPP co-chairman could not run in the elections as there were a number of corruption cases pending against him. However, now that they have all been thrown out for lack of evidence, he can contest for an assembly seat in one of the by-elections that are due shortly. This would make him eligible for the top slot.
Adding weight to this speculation is the alacrity with which the courts have dismissed the charges against Zardari after scores of desultory hearings over the last twelve years. Indeed, this only reinforces Benazir Bhutto’s earlier assertion that the charges were politically motivated.
From the perspective of Pervez Musharraf - a president wounded by his supporters’ electoral defeat, facing a hostile majority in parliament, but still defiantly seeking maximum advantage in straitened circumstances - Asif Ali Zardari would be the ideal prime minister. The PPP leader is the only politician who has said he could live with the strongman who has ruled Pakistan for nearly nine years. By contrast, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif - backed by his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) - longs to eject Musharraf from power, a desire shared too by most senior PPP personnel.
Against this backdrop of political manoeuvre and calculation, the terrorist attacks against military and civilian targets have, if anything, quickened in tempo. On 11 March, a suicide-bomber who drove a pick-up truck towards the seven-storied regional office of the Federal Investigation Agency in Lahore; the 200-kilogram bomb virtually demolished the building. Then, on 15 March, an explosion at an Italian restaurant in Islamabad on killed a Turkish woman and wounded a number of foreigners, including four Americans purportedly working for the FBI and attached to the American embassy. The attack was not the usual random suicide-bombing, and thus has provoked widespread speculation that its target was the head of the FBI in Pakistan (one of those wounded in the attack).
The next day, 16 March - probably by coincidence - American Hellfire missiles fired from Predator drones demolished a house outside Wana, the regional headquarters of one of Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas, South Waziristan. The dwelling targeted was allegedly being used as an al-Qaida or Taliban meeting- places or training-centre; the casualties (at least nine killed and another nine wounded, although some estimates put the fatalities at twenty) included Arabs, central Asians and a number of Punjabis from Pakistan’s plains.
This is the latest in a series of such assaults, which are ordered on the basis of electronic and human intelligence collected by agencies from both the United States and Pakistan (though defence spokespeople from both countries often refuse to accept or deny responsibility).
Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan
Among Irfan Husain’s articles in openDemocracy:
“Pakistan: the enemy within” (30 July 2007)
“Pakistan’s poker-game” (14 September 2007)
“Pervez Musharraf’s desperate gamble” (5 November 2007)
“Pakistan’s multi-faceted crisis” (12 November 2007)
“Pakistan: a question of legitimacy” (26 November 2007)
“Pakistan: the election and after” (10 December 2007)
“Benazir Bhutto: the politics of murder” (28 December 2007)
“Pakistan: a post-election scenario” (11 January 2008)
“Pakistan’s critical moment” (11 February 2008)
“Pakistan’s judgment day” (22 February 2008)
The Lahore and Islamabad attacks represent just one of the problems that await the imminent choice of a new prime minister and government. But there are other issues apart from violence that the next cabinet will inherit: among them inflation (the caretaker government’s double rise in the price of petroleum products in the last week is just one example), repeated and nerve-fraying electricity breakdowns and “load-shedding”, and depletion of reservoirs (raising fears of a poor wheat crop at a time of concern over global food security).
Many of these problems are directly attributable to the administrative mismanagement of the Musharraf years. For instance, not a single megawatt of power has been added to the national grid during the general-president’s almost nine years of rule. This helps to explain why the people - when they got the chance - punished Musharraf and his allies at the polls. But they will now have high expectations of the new government; expectations it won’t be able to fulfil, at least in the short run.
But the next government has agreed to tackle at least one issue almost immediately: the restoration to office of the chief justice (Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry) and the other judges sacked by Musharraf on 3 November 2007 when he declared a state of emergency. This was the price Nawaz Sharif extracted from Zardari in return for joining the coalition. The supreme court meets to discuss this and other matters on 19 March; constitutional experts agree that a simple resolution by a majority of national-assembly members is all that is required to restore the status quo ante of 2 November.
This decision would itself open new possibilities, and very unwelcome ones for Pervez Musharraf. For once the higher judiciary is reinstalled, it is sure to be presented with a number of challenges to Musharraf’s election as president by the assembly in place before the election. Indeed, Pakistan’s supreme court was hearing such appeals when Musharraf struck to save his presidency by nullifying them. This time, he does not have the political and military resources to mount a similar coup.
But even if the president survives the rising legal waters, he will be unable to exercise the powers he has become accustomed to. In the Pakistani constitution, the president is a figurehead with no executive powers. As a military dictator able to rely on a pliant assembly, Musharraf could arrogate to himself the authority to sack a government. Now even his residual powers are likely to be voted away, leaving him even more a diminished figure.
Pervez Musharraf would do himself and all Pakistan a huge favour if he were to go quietly into the night before being kicked out. Then the hard work of an elected, civilian government - and a new phase in Pakistan’s troubled history - can begin.
Get our weekly email