Friday, 28 December 2007

What Next?

I had been gearing up to write a post on the coming elections, the possible outcomes and what they might mean for the country, but the assassination of Benazir Bhutto seems to have thrown all the old equations out of the window.

So what will happen now?

The immediate reaction from the western press seems to be one of doom and gloom. 'Pakistan stares into the Abyss' says one experienced and usually level-headed blogger; 'Tentative steps towards democracy may become headlong rush into political chaos' warns the Guardian; the USA Today feels that Pakistan's best hope of 'becoming a stable democracy anytime soon may have died with Benazir Bhutto'. BBC is a little more circumspect, calling the assassination a 'severe blow to hope for stability' and asking 'what next for Pakistan'? CNN was constantly abuzz with discussion over what this means for the 'War on Terror' with repeated references to nuclear weapons and Islamist militants.

My own view of the situation is firstly, no, Pakistan is not going to immediately fall apart and leave nukes in the hands of Islamist militants. Secondly, yes, this is a severe blow to hopes for stability and Pakistan is headed for a political crisis. As for reversals for democracy, well, one is hard pressed to describe the previous political process in which Benazir was involved, as a movement towards 'stable democracy'.

This is not to say that our political leaders might not still manage to drag the entire nation into chaos - its possible I suppose, given the state of affairs and the seemingly miraculous ability of our political leaders to really make a mess of things. However, that will require some effort and a whole series of mis-steps.

For the immediate future, I think this leaves Musharraf's political future in deep trouble. Make no mistake, the man himself may survive, but I think hopes for taking serious measures to tackle extremism in the country could only have happened with political support from the PPP. There are certainly close advisers of Musharraf and people in the military who don't feel that the PPP is needed, but these people seem to spout such delusional fantasies of their own accomplishments, that they either have a very loose grip on reality or they are more interested in self-serving hypocrisy than tackling militancy.

All this is quiet apart from the fact that most people are holding Musharraf personally responsible and in the current climate of outrage and anger, various politicians may sense blood and try to bring him down. Nawaz Sharif seems to have already unsheathed his knives by announcing the PML-N will not take part in elections. Having lost the prop of being the army chief, and with his own political party, the PML-Q consisting of a band of mercenaries, Musharraf is at his most vulnerable. So far both these pillars of his authority seem to be standing by him, but it remains to be seen if they will do so if push comes to shove. Furthermore its not immediately clear who will take over the reins of power in the PPP now that Bhutto is gone, and if Musharraf will be able to make a deal with them. The three names being mentioned so far are Makhdoom Amin Fahim, Asif Zardari and Aitizaz Ahsan.

Makhdoom Amin Fahim is the titular head of the PPP, but he was in this position precisely because he was a 'yes-man' - someone who Benazir could trust to follow orders while she was in exile, and without a very strong base within the party apparatus. Asif Zardari seems to be maneuvering to take his late wife's position, and he can rely on his marital connection for mass support, but if he were to lead the PPP, one simply cannot see Musharraf coming to a political accommodation with him. It would be the height of hypocrisy for a president who took power with the promise to deliver accountability and honesty to form a political alliance with the man reputed to be the most corrupt in the country. As for the third candidate, Aitizaz Ahsan, who is still languishing under house arrest; he has been the most outspoken voice against the military and Musharraf in the country over the last year, and he is unlikely to enter into any kind of political arrangement with Musharraf.

One possibility is that Makhdoom Amin Fahim may become a compromise candidate to lead the party between different factions within the party. If this were to happen, some kind of political accommodation between the PPP and Musharraf would still be on the cards.

But of course all this conjecture is based on 2 assumptions, neither of which can be taken for granted:

The assumption is that Musharraf is serious about tackling militancy and is clear-eyed enough to understand what this will entail. Its possible that he doesn't feel militancy is a serious problem, or that a few missile strikes and the doling out of massive quantities of bribe money will "end militancy". Needless to say these tactics have been failing miserably for the last 5 years and will fail miserably again.

The second assumption is that Musharraf still has full control over decision-making within the military-PML-Q setup. Some observers speculate that he has already become something of a lame duck, dependent on the COAS and senior PML-Q leaders. If the PML-Q bigwigs are exerting more influence these days, the idea of an alliance with the PPP may be stillborn.

But that is mere speculation. Right now its still difficult to see where the chips may fall.

Edit: I came across this article in the IHT which echoes a few of the points I've made.

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