Friday, 22 June 2007

Sir Rushdie and the PML-Q's New Election Strategy

These days PML-Q party leaders must be heaving sighs of relief and sending up prayers of thanks to the Almighty. In between, that is, their ever more extraordinary fulminations of gleeful outrage over the Rushdie knighthood. Finally, there may be a way to derail what had looked like an increasingly inevitable election defeat.

Things started to fall apart for Musharraf and the 'King's Party' (as the PML-Q is known) in March when Musharraf had the Chief Justice dismissed for alleged nepotism (and more absurdly, travelling in a helicopter at government expense). The real reason was that according to the constitutional amendments that Musharraf and the King's party had pushed through, with the help of the MMA, (a coalition of Islamic parties) the post of Army Chief and President could not be combined beyond 2007. An attempt by Musharraf to get elected as President would see a legal challenge which would have been decided by the Supreme Court. Musharraf had to ensure that the SC ruling would be on his side. Since Military Intelligence spies on all the members of the SC, Musharraf presumably had information about which way the Chief Justice would rule if a legal challenge were issued.

This backfired in a big way, with most of the legal community coming out on to the streets to protest and insist on the independence of the judiciary. The heavy-handed response by the police against the peaceful protesters, and the heavy media coverage of this response sparked further outrage. Suddenly civil society seemed to be coming out on the streets against military rule.
A rally turns out to greet the Chief Justice (image: BBC)

Opposition parties quickly caught on and tethered themselves to the extraordinary support for the Chief Justice. Protests grew in size and volume. When an attempt to have a rally in Karachi was brutally suppressed by the gunmen from the government aligned MQM party, outrage flared anew. The media was full of outspoken attacks on the government and Musharraf's attempt to curb media freedoms further backfired, even drawing fire from outside the country as well. The government quickly had to back-pedal on the restrictions. To top it all off, the PML-Q was in utter disarray.

The PML-Q was always a rickety coalition of disparate interests. Composed for the most part of professional "lotas" - candidates with secure seats in their localities who sell their party membership to the highest bidder - there is little ideological glue that binds them together. A few are genuine supporters of Musharraf and his ideals of "enlightened moderation", but for the most part they are sell-swords who had realised after the overthrow of the Nawaz government (of which most of them were a part) which side of the bread was buttered.

With election disaster now looming, the PML-Q looked to be crumbling. Mir Zafarullah Jamali, who had been Musharraf's first pick for the post of Prime Minister, quit the ruling party, criticising the party he had formerly led, and calling for a new constitution that clearly laid out the limits of the army's role in the government. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz publicly attacked members of the party for their lack of support during the ongoing crisis. While opposition MNAs vociferously attacked the government on TV talk shows, members of the PML-Q either declined invitations to appear or mounted lukewarm defences of government actions, perhaps afraid of becoming alienated from any future ruling coalition. More tellingly, a minister leaked the increasingly isolated Musharraf's ticking off of his administration at a closed door meeting of the cabinet. "You always leave me alone in time of trial and tribulation," he is reported to have said, "I feel disturbed for the first time." Members of the ruling party responded by saying that they had put their careers on the line to support Musharraf, but were not consulted in key decisions. Welcome to the military mindset, one might well have replied.

Former Prime Minister Jamali quit the PML-Q (Image: Daily Times)

There had already been discontent within the party over the proposed "deal" between Musharraf and the PPP. Acknowledging that the PPP would probably win the popular vote in coming elections, Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto were widely known to be negotiating a deal in which Bhutto would be allowed to run for elections and outstanding corruption charges against her would be dropped clearing the way for her to become the new Prime Minister. In return Bhutto would support his candidacy for President and form a coalition government with the PML-Q. These negotiations were still ongoing, with Musharraf's desire to retain his army post as the sticking point, when the storm over the Chief Justice broke. When the PPP, after some initial hesitation, finally threw its lot in with the Chief Justice, these negotiations broke down and Musharraf in a pique of anger declared that, despite his former statements, he would not allow Benaizir Bhutto to return to the country and run for elections.

This now left Musharraf in a bind. If he couldn't rely on PPP votes in parliament to get him re-elected, where was he going to turn? The first step was to reassure PML-Q party members. The second was to cast about for another party willing to ally itself with the PML-Q. The obvious answer would be the MMA.

The MMA is a coalition of a spectrum of Islamist parties. It has its more democratically-minded wing in the JI (Jamaat-i-Islami) but generally the MMA has been happy to work with the PML-Q and Musharraf even while condemning him for his pro-western stance and his stated ideal of "enlightened moderation". It was the MMA that had provided desperately needed votes to get the constitutional changes that cemented Musharraf in power in previous years. The military had also helped the MMA sweep elections in the two provinces of NWFP and Baluchistan in 2002 by banning their main opponents, the nationalist ANP and other Baluch nationalist parties from campaigning. The MMA and PML-Q are coalition partners in the Baluchistan provincial legislature. Finally many of the current PML-Q and MMA leaders had been part of coalition governments in previous years from the time of Zia-ul-Haq onwards.

The major stumbling block was that the MMA and the government were at loggerheads over the involvement of Pakistan in the 'war on terror'. Pakistan's stop-start operations against the Taleban and Al-Qaeda elements in the country were a function not just of American pressure to produce results, or the ISI's desire to maintain a Jihadist network for use against India, but also the government's desire to not completely alienate MMA support. For their part, the MMA feared losing elections to resurgent Pakhtun and Baluch nationalist parties, buoyed by widespread outrage at the MMA's support of the Pakistani army's brutal suppression of Baluchi nationalists in a dirty civil war whose embers are still flickering. Ultimately, the Pakistan army's defeat and humiliating retreat from Waziristan paved the way for an end of military operations and a series of MMA-sponsored deals with militants that have ceded sovereignty over large tracts of Pakistani territory to bodies such as the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan.

Baluch nationalists at a gathering of tribal chiefs in 2006 (Image:

But can the MMA make a switch when they have so publicly and loudly decried Musharraf and his government? Furthermore, both the MMA and the PPP are ostensibly members of 'grand party alliance' to restore democracy, how can the MMA justify a break with the PPP when they both have the same declared aims? And on what issue can the PML-Q hope to mobilise support and try and slow the momentum that has built during the countrywide demonstrations against the military government?

Like an angel sent from heaven to offer deliverance, enter Salman Rushdie and his knighthood.

The thing about populist demagoguery about non-issues is that it has no logic, and often its a safe band-wagon to hitch your horses to. What's interesting is that all of these people who are insisting that they will become suicide bombers or assassins and so forth are all from the governing PML-Q party. And look who they are targeting in their speeches.

So you have some women in the Punjab Provincial Assembly indulging in some sloganeering: “Rushdie ki tasveer, Benazir Benazir.” (Rushdie's splitting image: Benazir, Benazir!) You also have the Sindh Chief Minister, Dr Arbab Ghulam Rahim, a truly odious man, taking the brave self-sacrificing step of renouncing his deceased grandfather's knighthood. To top off the show, he reminded the world that Benazir Bhutto's grandfather was also a knight of the realm and insisted that if she were a true Muslim, she too would renounce her grandfather's knighthood.

Arbab Ghulam Rahim shows off his grandpappy's medals. (Image: Dawn)

At least both their grandfathers worked together in rendering services to the British Empire. On the other hand, the man whose father had Benazir's father murdered, Ejaz-ul-Haq, alleged that Benazir had "contacts" with Rushdie - the impression given that these contacts were of an intimate nature. According to Dawn, "Mr Haq said he and millions of Muslims were ready to sacrifice their lives and everything else to protect the sanctity of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)." Then, just in case someone took him literally, " He said he had never supported suicide bombing."

What better way to create an "issue" to rally people around and attack the PPP on? What better way to distract attention from all the other issues confronting the country today? What better way to draw the MMA and PML-Q together? 'Defending' Islam might just be the gimmick that will allow the two parties to weather the coming elections intact.


Edit: And now the Prime Minister has gotten in on the act. The National Assembly, meanwhile has passed a second resolution condemning Rushdie and the British government. How much political miliage are they going to try and squeeze from this?

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