There seems to be some disagreement between Pakistan's extremists over participation in the May 11 elections. Pakistani Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan recently told Pakistanis to boycott the elections because democracy is un-Islamic, while Maulana Sami ul-Haq, a conservative cleric who runs a religious seminary that trained many Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, said in a follow-up statement that voting is a religious obligation.
Could it be that the Taliban's brutal attacks on politicians belonging to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) coalition have actually been detrimental to the wider extremist movement in Pakistan? The attacks definitely handicap religious parties, who often share sympathies and ideologies with the Taliban, at a time when they could potentially capitalize on staunch public disappointment with the outgoing government's performance.
While religious parties lost big in the 2008 elections, they probably anticipated some role for themselves in the next government, which is likely to be led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, a conservative political party known for its own "special relationship" with extremists. Religious parties were further bolstered by a survey conducted by the British Council earlier this year revealing that 38 percent of Pakistani youth surveyed believed Islamic law is better suited for Pakistan than democracy.
Instead, Taliban attacks have likely increased chances of a high sympathy vote for the secular parties, a dynamic that helped usher in the PPP coalition in 2008 following the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto.
Why is it, though, that the extremists are not speaking with one voice? The commonsense - and most likely - argument is that they are just plain unorganized. Even though many of Haq's students joined the Taliban movement, it's doubtful that he has direct influence over the Taliban command and control structure - hence the very public statements contradicting the official Taliban position.
Let's not forget that Haq is a politician who leads his own political party and previously served in the Senate. His statements are more a warning for his former students than anyone else to not ruin his chances or those of the others who have been sitting on the sidelines for several years. A return to politics means a chance to advance the ideological agenda of the religious right, but it also allows individuals like Haq and his friends to benefit from state resources, foreign aid flows, and other "perks" of being in power.
No one expects the religious right to take over...yet. Religious parties never have much success in Pakistani elections. Furthermore, the likelihood of a General Zia ul-Haq figure emerging on the scene is low. Zia, the military dictator who introduced a conservative interpretation of shariah law in several areas of Pakistani culture and law, began the trend of mixing religion with politics as a tool of state power. The approach engendered a vast network of militants that fought mostly Pakistan's battles while invoking the name of Islam; some were also used by the United States in pushing the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, while others advanced their own sectarian agendas.
While no one can compete with Zia's quasi-theocratic feat at the moment, religion and politics still mix - and badly. Pakistan's long relationship with militants and its cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 have engendered a new breed of religious right - those against the state, namely the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
It is because of this shift in the state's relationship with militants that the Pakistani military has a clear interest in strengthening the religious right's political chances. Could the likes of Sami ul-Haq and other religious political parties convince the Pakistani Taliban to stop attacking the Pakistani military, secular politicians, and ordinary citizens? Don't bet money on it, but in February the Taliban did say they would participate in talks with the military if they would be mediated by one of the following individuals: Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz President Nawaz Sharif, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Munawar Hasan, or Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
The talks did not happen. Instead, the Pakistani military began an operation in the Tirah Valley where numerous security officials and militants have died. It is becoming harder and harder for the Pakistani military to respond to battlefield challenges by militants who now want access to the ballot box too. In addition to militant leader Hafeez Saeed's new "political career," dozens of individuals with alleged links to militant organizations have filed papers for the elections.
The entrée of such unsavory characters into Pakistani politics would not be a first, but it would be the wrong direction for a country that is still testing a rapidly evolving democratic culture and also trying to clarify the role of religion in politics. Islam, after all, is inextricable from Pakistan's history. The country was formed in 1947 as part of a political push by Muhammad Ali Jinnah to establish a homeland for the Indian subcontinent's impoverished Muslims. General Kayani, Chief of Army Staff, reiterated this point last week when he told the country's premier military academy that "Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and Islam can never be taken out of Pakistan."
Many believed Kayani's remarks justified religious extremism. This can hardly be the whole truth given the losses the military has suffered fighting the Pakistani Taliban. But the skepticism provoked by his remarks illustrates just how damaged religion and politics has become in Pakistan.
If extremists can take advantage of this characterization of Pakistan to advance their violent agendas, then surely the country's secular parties and government institutions can strengthen themselves against the militant threat in the name of Islam as well. But with extremists such as the members of the banned sectarian group, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, fielding candidates in this week's elections, such progress does not appear imminent.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.
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The life of a Pakistani politician is fraught with life-threatening situations. In recent years, several high-profile politicians have been assassinated: former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti in 2011. The dangerous trend has continued this month with the targeting of lower-profile candidates running for office in the upcoming May 11 parliamentary elections. In these instances, the Pakistani Taliban or religious extremists were the perpetrators, choosing their targets for either "un-Islamic" secular and progressive values or their perceived cooperation with the United States against Pakistani militants and in the war in Afghanistan.
Beyond the tragic loss of life, the assassinations have the added casualty of limiting the space within which Pakistani leaders can safely operate. Taliban attacks have pressured willing and able voices against extremism into silence on issues-such as minority rights, girls' education, and trade with India-that Pakistani society must publicly debate in order to fully embrace and institutionalize them. Those who remain vocal do so at great personal and professional risk: Pakistan's Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman faces charges in Pakistani courts for her support of revisions to the blasphemy law.
In the context of upcoming polls, even more worrisome is that the specter of assassination and violence could affect the election outcome, and potentially the representation of key Pakistani constituencies. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan announced the group's intention to target candidates and party workers affiliated with the ruling coalition's Awami National Party (ANP), Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). ANP and MQM candidates and activists have already been injured or killed-fear tactics intended to directly handicap the ruling coalition's chances of returning to power.
Another side effect of the Pakistani Taliban's killing spree is that the specific pressure on the ANP could skew the Pashtun vote. After the 2008 election, many had high hopes for the secular party based in the Pashtun-concentrated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. But even then security threats from the Pakistani Taliban prevented ANP from fully taking advantage of the mandate the voters had given it. ANP was viewed as a potential counter to the influence of religious parties like Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), which swept national and provincial elections during the Musharraf years as part of a coalition of religious parties known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal.
The Pakistani Taliban's renewed targeting of ANP could improve the chances of religious parties who have, in the past, shared common ideological ground with them. The influence of religious parties has typically been downplayed, but what they are selling might have a new buyer. A survey conducted by the British Council earlier this year revealed that 38 percent of Pakistani youth surveyed believed Islamic law is better suited for Pakistan than democracy.
But the Pakistani Taliban has also threatened some religious parties, such as JUI, for cooperation with the federal government. The real worry is not the return of religious parties but the disenfranchisement of Pakistani Pashtuns, who may decide to stay at home on election day to avoid violence. This is the last thing the Pakistani state needs in a province that borders the ungoverned tribal areas and where the notion of a greater Pashtun homeland-"Pashtunistan"-exists in spirit if not fully in practice. ANP also faces threats in Karachi, where the growing Pashtun population has become ensconced in the city's gangland-style political culture. Any handicaps for Karachi's Pashtuns in the upcoming elections could also potentially worsen the security situation there.
The PPP, which led the previous government with ANP as a coalition partner, faces similar challenges in reaching voters. President Asif Ali Zardari has been reluctant to participate in large public rallies during this campaign, and for good reason. The memory of the 2007 assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, following a rally in Rawalpindi is still fresh among PPP leadership. Fears of assassination have kept Zardari out of the public eye for most of his term and now limit how much his son Bilawal Bhutto, the PPP's heir apparent, campaigns on behalf of the party as well.
Bhutto could have rallied the party's base at a time when the PPP needs it the most. Besides the PPP stronghold of interior Sindh, nowhere else is PPP guaranteed to dominate. Voter outreach is especially critical in north and central Punjab, the traditional domain of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and where Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has made inroads. Most elections analysts believe that if PTI can continue to tap into PML-N's base of support, especially among urban educated youth, then PPP's chances in Punjab are inadvertently strengthened. It can also benefit from the fact that the strength of PTI's "tsunami" appears to be tapering off. If PPP can access voters who are falling off the PTI bandwagon, it could have a chance in chipping away at PML-N's lead. But PPP cannot rely solely on PML-N's failures or PTI's wane.
For the time being, Pakistani Taliban threats continue to keep the most influential PPP politicians far from Punjab where it matters the most. Even more tragic is the possibility that ANP will be forced to boycott the elections. While much of the elections focus has been on the historic political transition afoot in Pakistan, the threats serve as a reminder of the tough road ahead for whoever manages to survive and come out on top.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.
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During a recent trip to the region, Secretary of State John Kerry decided not to visit Pakistan out of respect for the country's ongoing electoral processes. He made the right choice.
The United States has repeatedly found itself in the middle of Pakistan's domestic politics, a problem partially of its own making. In 2006, the United States tried to broker a power-sharing deal between exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and then-President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, who unceremoniously took power in a bloodless coup against the Nawaz Sharif government in 1999, desperately needed domestic and international legitimization of his presidency. Bhutto - the popular scion of a political family from Sindh - could offer the domestic portion of that by participating in national elections that would be sure to put her back into office as Prime Minister. An increasingly unpopular Musharraf could stay on as president.
While U.S. mediation was warranted to some extent on account of the high stakes involved in the "global war on terror," the result was disastrous. After months of secretive meetings with a coterie of high-level American officials and informal representatives, Bhutto returned to Pakistan from exile in Dubai only to be assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban ten weeks later. Ever since, the United States has in some way been blamed for her death and the circumstances following it, most notably the election of Bhutto's widow, Asif Ali Zardari, as President of Pakistan.
If Secretary Kerry had visited Pakistan, he would have inevitably signaled de facto American support for the incumbent Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and co-chairman Zardari, who remains President until September. Zardari and the PPP would have relished such attention given their dismal electoral chances, but the United States did not take the bait.
Maneuvers to elicit U.S. support for legitimacy within Pakistan are not new tactics for Pakistani politicians. Since his self-initiated exile in 2008, Musharraf has diligently sought U.S. government support to anoint his return to Pakistani politics. After all, if the United States did this for Bhutto in 2006, then why not for him - the secular, U.S.-leaning, cosmopolitan general turned statesman who enjoys an occasional scotch?
Musharraf should get credit for trying. He lobbied hard within U.S. political circles, with his Philadelphia-based office regularly releasing photographs and announcements of his meetings with members of Congress. In a slightly disingenuous move in 2011, his office even released a photograph of Musharraf with Vice President Joe Biden at a football game, suggesting the meeting was planned. The Vice President's office quickly covered its bases by clarifying that it was a chance encounter with "no substantive conversation."
In reality, Musharraf tried many times to get meetings at the State Department and White House but failed. Don't look for the United States to change track now that Musharraf is back in Pakistan. U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Rick Olson recently said of his return: "I don't see this as a terribly large or significant event...he doesn't have a great deal of support." The White House later chimed in to say Musharraf's return was "an internal matter." And recall that just the week before, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland clarified in a morning briefing that the United States "has no favorites among Pakistani politicians and we are looking forward to work with whoever is elected on May 11." An unnamed senior State Department official was even blunter, saying the United States "did not want to lead anyone to conclude anything about where" U.S. interests may lie."
It is now clearer than ever before that the United States does not want to get involved in Pakistan's domestic politics. Letting political affairs run their course is the best thing the United States - or any other country, individual or institution - can do. Given negative Pakistani public and government perceptions of the United States, it is extremely unlikely that the United States could effectively achieve its objectives if it chose to get more involved.
No doubt America will find another way to sustain stable and friendly relations with the Pakistani government - too much is at stake. Until the end of 2014, the United States will remain heavily dependent on the Pakistani military's cooperation in keeping NATO supply routes from Afghanistan through Pakistan open. Longer term challenges of Pakistan-based Al Qaeda members and affiliates, as well as Pakistan's nuclear program, demand the United States has a more normalized relationship with Islamabad. Time will tell if the United States can truly go cold turkey on getting involved in Pakistani politics to advance its own interests.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.
The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) coalition government is the first in Pakistani history to complete a full term, making PPP well-deserving of the credit many are giving it. PPP receives high marks for its improvements to the constitution, specifically in returning powers to the Prime Minister that were unduly given to the president during Pervez Musharraf's military rule, and devolving powers to the provinces.
But the accolades do not match up with the sentiments of voters. Several pre-election polls indicate that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will be the clear winner in Pakistan's upcoming general election. The PPP has been hurt by strong anti-incumbency sentiment among the electorate. Apparently, voters do not care that the PPP just made history.
The PPP's record on a host of issues fails to live up to the ambitious framework it laid out in its 2008 party manifesto, a pre-elections document outlining the party's principles and positions on policy priorities. Here we look at successes and failures in two areas - the economy and defense - that have garnered a great deal of attention since the beginning of PPP's term.
Ask anyone in Pakistan and they will tell you that the PPP did not deliver on its economic promises. However, some basic comparisons of the economy since 2008 show more mixed results.
The PPP did follow through on its promise to lower inflation. In November 2008, just two months after President Asif Ali Zardari's inauguration, inflation rose to a thirty-year high of 25%. At the end of 2012, inflation dropped to 6.9%, the lowest in four years. This doesn't mean that Pakistanis can expect price stability for the foreseeable future. The International Monetary Fund warned that inflation could return to double digits in the 2012-2013 fiscal year because of continued government borrowing from the State Bank. This especially bad habit of the PPP government has had multiple adverse economic consequences; as a result, PPP majorly failed in its promise to ensure sound macro-economic policies.
The PPP has followed through on aspects of its promise to bring progress to the doorstep of the workers, farmers and small businesses. Supported partially by the assistance of multilateral and bilateral donors, the government launched the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP). This initiative distributed more than $1 billion in cash transfers to 3.5 million families in poverty. BISP, combined with higher commodity prices and cash from bumper crops, contributed to the economic boom over the past several years in Pakistan's rural areas, where spending on both consumer products is higher than ever before. However, comparisons of household income during the first three years of the PPP's term show a more uneven growth for the rural poor, with incomes of urban households rising by 1.1% annually while those in rural areas declined by 0.8%.
The 2008 manifesto promised to ensure that energy shortages are eliminated. Under the PPP's watch, Pakistanis experienced some of the worst energy shortages in the country's history. Protests over power cuts turned violent. Senior government officials refuse to pay their personal electricity bills, a practice some government agencies also seem to engage in. The PPP attempted to initiate large-scale initiatives, such as the recently launched Iran-Pakistan oil pipeline and Daimer-Basha dam project, but to no avail. These projects require major capital investments and will take a long time to show results; their inauguration was viewed as more political stunt than genuine attempt to eliminate energy shortages. Other efforts to eliminate energy subsidies and increase fuel prices faced challenges in parliament by both opposition and coalition members.
The PPP promised to rid Pakistan of violence, bigotry and terror and to ensure a strong defense. But under its watch, persecution of minorities has gone up. In the past year, Pakistan witnessed an unprecedented number of Shia killings all over the country: in Baluchistan, Karachi, Lahore, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The debate over amending the blasphemy law unraveled, leading to numerous instances of violence against Christians who allegedly engaged in blasphemous behavior. Even Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, has been accused of blasphemy.
The PPP's other security problem is the domestic insurgency in northwestern Pakistan, with multiple attempts to negotiate with or pressure the Pakistani Taliban falling flat. In spirit, the PPP does not support persecution of minorities, nor does it have a history of being ideologically soft on militants (in comparison to other political parties). But its unwillingness and inability to challenge the nation's big security demons shows its limitations in a political environment dominated by competing interests. The military's links to sectarian groups in Punjab are well known; it has used them as proxies in its conflict with India. Civilian leaders have been hard pressed to truly challenge such groups, fearing possible backlash from the security establishment.
The PPP should be given partial credit for beginning to normalize security ties with the United States. Regardless of what side you sit on, the cloak and dagger relationship built by former presidents George W. Bush and Pervez Musharraf was politically unsustainable in both Washington and Islamabad. It was only a matter of time before other stakeholders in the relationship angled to get involved. In Pakistan, this was most visible in July 2012 when a parliamentary committee demanded that it review the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations before ending a NATO routes closure that had been triggered by a deadly cross-border NATO attack that killed more than twenty Pakistani soldiers. There was nothing legally binding about the parliamentary review, but the simple act of civilian officials debating sensitive security policy is meaningful on a symbolic level. On Afghanistan policy, the more visible role of Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Afghan Foreign Secretary Jalil Jilani, especially in conversations with the United States, was also indicative of stronger civilian engagement, if not ownership, on security matters.
But the PPP's strengths on security, few as they were, did almost nothing to win gains against the Pakistani Taliban and its friends, who continue to target the government and its citizens. The ambitions, motivations, and power of these groups are clearly in flux and in many ways getting stronger. No amount of enhanced civilian engagement alone can alter their flight path. Furthermore, any government would have to make similar trade-offs when determining which national security policies to pursue and which ones it knows it cannot influence.
It is exactly this "trade-offs" focused approach, in both security and economic matters, that has limited PPP's implementation of its objectives that it laid out so ambitiously in 2008, meaning its chances of electoral victory are getting smaller by the day.
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Everywhere you turn these days in Pakistan, there seems to be a personality, institution, or issue threatening to delay, steal or sweep this year's national elections. The impending return of former President and military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, announced last week, is just the latest in this series.
With elections so close, there's no time left for ambiguity about who has the power to influence and who does not. In the case of Musharraf, who plans to run in the elections, the impending return from self-imposed exile has been announced previously on several occasions. But, like all the other times, he walked his intentions back just days later, noting that he might not have enough "political support" to return.
He's right about that one. While there is some appreciation for the strong economic growth during his tenure, no one inside Pakistan believes in his chances of electoral success. Even his home institution of the military has distanced itself from him; some say it would rather he not come at all, to avoid being in a position where it must offer him protection while in Pakistan. Furthermore, Musharraf's political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, was formed just three years ago and is simply not a major political player. One final thing: if he returns to Pakistan, he could be arrested for his alleged involvement in the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Another group that's more bark than bite for now when it comes to votes is the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), an umbrella organization of religious parties. It includes plenty of pro-Taliban, Shia-hating, and anti-U.S. political personalities, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, who plan to become more political engaged above and beyond their day-to-day militancy. After a major "coming out" rally in 2012 that condemned drone attacks and U.S. operations in Afghanistan, the DPC has sustained its focus on this agenda. Recently, it filed a petition at the Peshawar High Court challenging drone strikes in the country.
But the newfound organization and street power of religious parties should not mislead. Very few Pakistanis will be convinced of their ability to save the nation. Religious parties have never governed Pakistan, nor are they likely to do so after this year's elections. In 2008, Pakistanis voted them out of power because they failed to deliver results on socioeconomic issues more so than anything else.
Some of DPC's right-wing "social welfare" groups like Jamat-ud-Dawa, however, have the attention of national and provincial governments due to their access to large constituencies in critical voting areas, such as southern Punjab province. This makes speculation that candidates could potentially run under a DPC ticket in the elections all the more feasible. Despite the DPC's zero chance of coming into power, its increased political activity could have a "spoiler effect" on certain policymaking, similar to 2007, when President Musharraf refused to reform problematic blasphemy laws because they were backed by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of religious parties in his government.
Meanwhile, a demographic that does represent a true unknown in terms of its power in the elections is the youth vote. The numbers suggest that youth could make or break this election. With 35 million new voters this year, Pakistani politicians will have to figure out how to court those under age 40, which represent over half of that number. This has been the strategy of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which is banking on the fact that Khan's non-dynastic legacy, corrupt-free reputation, and star power will appeal to disenchanted middle-class youth who are looking for a third option to the Sharif and Bhutto family legacies that have come to define politics in Pakistan.
Still, the many uncertainties about the youth vote prevent anyone from knowing just how effective of a kingmaker it can be right now. How many will actually cast ballots? If U.S. voting behavior during the 2008 election is any indication, capitalizing on the huge potential will require an extremely focused campaign and unique candidate built upon an agenda of change. Khan and PTI no longer fully embody this expectation, but neither does anyone else. Another potentially influential, but similarly unknown, aspect of youth voting behavior is how they will vote. In traditional Pakistani politics, votes typically go to the most generous patron/candidate or the one that shares an ethnic or geographic affiliation. New youth voters could simple adhere to this unofficial principle, a presumption further bolstered by the fact that most of the youth come from rural areas that rarely shift their political allegiances.
There is no good indicator of how elections will go, likely driven by the fact that there are so many individuals, groups, and issues that currently shape election politics. What we do know is that no single one of them will dominate. Pakistani politics is much too complex for that. In the wake of the government's dissolution, in the midst of the first-ever democratic transition of power in Pakistan, and at the beginning of the formal elections cycle, we are about to see just how complex it can get.
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Last week, three senior members of the Pakistani security establishment - including Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, the country's most powerful military official - stated that the military will not interfere in the country's upcoming national elections. (Observers take note - when the Pakistani military plans to take over, it will let you know.)
Indeed, of the numerous challenges over the last five years to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government's authority, the more overt ones came from Supreme Court efforts to remove President Asif Ali Zardari on corruption charges; flaky coalition partners like the Muttahida Quami Movement, whose frequent departures from the government threatened the coalition's viability; and the pro-regime change march led by Canada-based preacher Tahir ul-Qadri in January.
Still, observers could not help but ponder the possible military connections to each challenge - a state of mind that is second nature in a place like Pakistan, which has spent nearly three decades under military rule since its independence in 1947. The obsessive speculation also suggests a deep-seated expectation in Pakistani culture for the military to come to the country's rescue from a corrupt, inefficient government, even at the expense of democracy.
Those days seem to be over for now. With less than two weeks before its term expires, the PPP is still in charge, with no signs of an imminent hard or soft coup. Nor is there a clear path for significant military poll rigging, especially with a newly independent and neutral Election Commission, thanks to the 20th amendment passed in 2012. We can be sure, however, that the military, like other stakeholders and constituents, is watching the elections process closely, assessing ways it can exert its influence and preserve its interests in the next government. Keeping civilian involvement limited in key national security issues, such as India, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons development, and even relations with the United States will be a priority for the military.
The world, too, will be watching Pakistan with interest on March 16, when the PPP-led government's term expires. It will have been the first civilian government to complete a full term in the country's history. Any challenge to this history in the making will see diminishing returns. Even though the military remains the most popular institution in Pakistan, there is zero public support for overthrowing the civilian government or intervention in elections. No doubt the generals in Rawalpindi understand all of this.
But more than international scrutiny, internal leadership problems and ideological divides in the security establishment have inadvertently strengthened civilian rule. The military's cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan has come under fire from its lower ranks, a reality with violent consequences. Frequent attacks on military installations, like last year's incident at Kamra air base, can only happen with internal assistance, and imply some level sympathy within the military for Al Qaeda, the Taliban and affiliated groups. More specific discontent lies among the most senior officials, the Corps Commanders, some of whom reportedly missed their chance at promotion when the government extended Kayani's term by three years. Whispers of Kayani's family receiving lucrative government contracts have also attempted tarnish the general's standing with the public and within his institution.
The military has rightfully chosen to focus on its own problems rather than take on those of the civilians. Staying uninvolved while protecting its interests will not come easy, though. The combination of internal leadership and ideological challenges, lack of public support for elections interference, and intense scrutiny by the international community will simply force the military to pursue more indirect means to influence the elections process.
Ultimately, the Pakistani military does not need to lead a coup to interfere in elections. Its checkered past of political engineering speaks for itself. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had illegally financed politicians running against the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the 1990 national elections. In 2002, when General Pervez Musharraf held a referendum to legitimize his coup against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and extend military rule, domestic and international observers called it "blatantly" rigged.
Despite 2008 reports that the ISI shut down its political wing, known for "spying on politicians" and "making or breaking of political parties," rumors persist of military support for the purported indefinite extension of the impending caretaker government, as well as for the formation of the Defense of Pakistan Council (DPC), a coalition of conservative and extremist Islamist organizations aiming to be politically viable, possibly in this year's elections.
General Kayani said last week that it was his dream for Pakistan to have free and fair elections. Relatively speaking, it is possible that the elections could be rigged less than previous polls and with less military involvement. But the security establishment's enduring interest in a pliable and cooperative new government that does not interfere in its dealings will guarantee continued military involvement in politics - not the other way around.
Pakistan's military establishment will not always be this hesitant to get directly involved in politics. Over time, and especially as the U.S. war in Afghanistan winds down, the military could become less consumed by internal challenges, regaining political space to engage more directly. Additionally, public and institutional appetites for military intervention usually rise, peak, and fall over a period of 8-11 years; the governments of military rulers Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf both lasted this long. If there is indeed a "generational" quality to military rule in Pakistan, then another five years of a poorly performing civilian government could create opportunities for an unpopular military to reenter Pakistani politics.
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Pakistani Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh resigned last week - a curious move since the government will soon dissolve in the coming weeks after it announces a date for national elections. It has been speculated that he left because of economic policy disagreements with the government, but Shaikh himself told several sources that he left because he is under consideration for the post of caretaker prime minister. If so, he joins a well-respected group of professionals considered for the post; Supreme Court Bar Association President Asma Jehangir, Pakistan People's Party (PPP) politician Raza Rabbani and former Supreme Court justice Nasir Aslam Zahid are among the names that have already floated.
The caretaker prime minister will assume charge of an interim government as soon as the PPP coalition announces an election date, at which point the caretakers have up to ninety days to govern before elections.
Much ado has been made about the candidates and the process to set up a caretaker government, perhaps even more than the elections date itself. There are two reasons why such emphasis is warranted: because of its importance to the future of procedural democracy in Pakistan and because of the possible impact on the country's short-term economic stability.
First, the current procedure to establish a caretaker government requires agreement between the sitting government and the opposition, as mandated by the historic 20th amendment passed in 2012. Given the acrimonious past the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) share, this is no small feat. So far the two sides seem to be committed to cooperation, if not full reconciliation.
In the event the participants cannot reach agreement on a candidate - still a very real possibility - the 20th amendment has delineated specific steps to resolve the gridlock. The process would involve each side forwarding two names to a parliamentary committee that includes equal representation from the government and opposition. The committee can then take up to three days to settle on a name. If the committee is also unable to reach agreement, the Election Commission, as the final arbiter, must decide on a candidate within two days.
Unique to this process is the required engagement and opposition approval throughout, as well as the finite amount of time allotted for decision-making. The 20th amendment is a truly historic piece of electoral reform legislation that, if implemented correctly, can help begin to course-correct a democracy that has been off the rails since the country's inception.
Second, the caretaker government could be leading the charge to reinvigorate discussions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a new program to help Pakistan manage some of its macroeconomic challenges. Depleting foreign reserves combined with almost $2 billion in loan repayments due to the IMF by May foreshadow tough times ahead. Staying afloat remains too dependent upon uncontrollable factors such as lower oil prices, remittances from overseas Pakistanis staying at record high levels, and external aid like the U.S. Coalition Support Funds program, which periodically helps to offset low revenue generation elsewhere.
The Pakistani government has plenty of credible and internationally recognized economists who foresaw the current situation as unsustainable, and acknowledged the eventual likelihood of a new IMF program. But the political leadership would not commit to anything before elections. It now appears to believe discussion of such a program can begin through the caretaker leadership, which will likely be comprised of technocrats familiar to the IMF. Moeen Qureshi, a former Vice President of the World Bank who also worked at the International Finance Corporation and IMF, led the 1993 caretaker government that assumed charge between the tenures of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Former Finance Minister Shaikh, if nominated, would fit into the same category given his World Bank credentials.
If, and it is a big "if," the government can get all political parties to agree to the terms of a possible program, the IMF has indicated it would be amendable to some kind of arrangement. This makes the question of who leads the interim setup even more important to Pakistan's short-term economic stability. It must be someone who has the support and backing of all political actors and, to an extent, institutions with vested interests, such as the military, Supreme Court, and business community. Under these circumstances, a caretaker Prime Minister could potentially be a credible go-between for the IMF and a government in transition.
There is one obvious challenge - the caretaker government will not be in a position to follow up on or enforce any commitments made by political parties once its tenure is over. Beyond this specific obstacle, there is broader political uncertainty surrounding the potential caretakers. For several months now, political analysts in Pakistan have been warning of indirect military support for the extension of the caretaker government beyond the legally mandated 90-day term, postponing elections indefinitely. While such a scenario is unlikely, the persistent rumors swirling around a possible "soft coup" show the pervasiveness of the military's influence in Pakistani politics. Clearly, no amount of engagement with the opposition, electoral reform or credible technocrats has been able to fully challenge that narrative just yet.
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The current Pakistani government, led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), ends its term on March 18. The government is expected to announce a date for elections before the end of its term. Once the election date is set, the National Assembly will automatically dissolve and a caretaker government will assume charge for up to ninety days before the election.
On polling day, Pakistanis will elect 272 representatives to the National Assembly and 577 representatives to provincial assemblies in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Balochistan. The political party that secures 172 seats in the National Assembly, either independently or in coalition with other parties, will lead the next government.
Politics is a riddled and opaque game in Pakistan, a point driven home by former politician-turned preacher Tahir-ul Qadri, who despite his absence from Pakistani politics for eight years, was able to lead a 50,000-strong march into Islamabad last month pushing for electoral reforms - and actually won the government's commitment on some counts. Things are about to get even more complicated as the country prepares for national elections.
The campaign landscape is littered with the typical coterie of political party stalwarts, children of political dynasties, technocrats, and current and former army generals looking to shape the elections outcome. But three individuals stand out as possible leaders of Pakistan's next government - Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, and Imran Khan. Zardari and Sharif represent the old guard of politics - Zardari the widower of a political dynast and Sharif an industrialist from the country's breadbasket of Punjab. Khan claims to represent a new political wave, seeking to capture the desires of roughly 18 million new voters, young people who grew up watching Khan win cricket matches for the Pakistani national team. The profiles of the three men who would lead Pakistan promise elections that will be as entertaining as they will be historic.
Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan and Co-Chairman of the Pakistan People's Party
Who is he? Asif Ali Zardari has been a fixture in Pakistani politics since 1987, when he married Benazir Bhutto, the country's first female Prime Minister in 1988 and again in 1993. He hails from Sindh but is originally of Baloch ethnic origin. Because of his complicated past, checkered with imprisonment, exile and allegations of corruption, Zardari was viewed as an "accidental president" when he came into power in 2008 following his wife's assassination. As a result, his emergence as a masterful strategist of a complicated coalition was a surprise to many. He shares the PPP chairmanship with son Bilawal.
What does he want? Zardari's presidential term ends in September, several months after the national elections are expected. It is only fair to presume he wants to serve another term as President. The PPP's strength in the Senate, where it won a majority in the March 2012 elections, will help but Zardari won't be able to take home the prize so easily. An electoral college consisting of the Senate, provincial assemblies and the National Assembly actually elect the president. Zardari's chances will be determined by both national and provincial assembly elections taking place this year. He also likely wants to keep benefitting from the financial opportunities available to Pakistani politicians in power. But beyond personal power and money, Zardari also seeks to maintain PPP's strength so that his son, Bilawal, can eventually assume charge and continue the Bhutto family political legacy.
Pro: Zardari's number one strength remains his ability to make deals in a tough coalition environment, which is expected to continue in the next government. Whether it was meeting Muttahida Quami Movement demands to reverse fuel price hikes in order to stay in the coalition, the unanimous passage of the historic 18th amendment devolving power to the provinces, or re-opening NATO routes closed after a NATO airstrike killed several Pakistani soldiers, he wasn't too proud to beg to get what he wanted.
Con: Everyone seems to be working against him. Among his "enemies" are the military, judiciary, opposition parties, the Saudis - and the list goes on. Another five years of Zardari could also mean another five years of attempts to unseat him with corruption cases at the Supreme Court, soft coup attempts by the military, and gridlock on economic reform.
Nawaz Sharif, President of Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz
Who is he? Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif is the President of the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N). A former two-time Prime Minister, Sharif is also a Punjab-based industrialist whose family's real estate and agriculture holdings are valued at over $100 million. Like Zardari, he has strained ties with the military and judiciary, institutions that aided his eventual ouster in 1999, ironic since Sharif got his start under military dictator General Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s. His two tenures as Prime Minister (1990-1993 and 1997-1999) each straddled the governments of Benazir Bhutto, making for an intense rivalry between the PML-N and PPP that continues to this day, despite recent collaboration between the two parties.
What does he want? The third time's the charm - or at least Sharif hopes. Another go at Prime Minister would not only allow Sharif to make history - no one else has held the position three times - but it would also bring him back into the mainstream political fold. After Musharraf removed him from power in 1999, Sharif remained in political exile in Saudi Arabia until 2007. Since then, under his leadership the PML-N opposition has criticized the current government's policies but within apparently self-imposed boundaries, probably to avoid being viewed as "derailing democracy" at a time when disruptions to civilian rule are extremely unpopular.
Pro: Sharif brings along with him the most organized party structure in the country. Even though it lacks the national base that PPP boasts, the PML-N has focused on improving internal governance, strengthening development projects in key constituencies, identifying electable candidates to run on the PML-N ticket, and engaging new young and middle class voters.
Con: He talks to terrorists - sort of. One of the largest vote banks for the right of center PML-N is southern Punjab, a hotbed of violent extremist activity in madrassas run by jihadist and sectarian outfits such as Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The PML-N cannot ignore the massive base these groups yield in Punjab, which elects 148 out of 272 National Assembly members. In 2010, PML-N Provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah reportedly visited the Sipah-e-Sihaba madrassa and met with its leader while campaigning in by-elections. Such relations suggest that a PML-N-led government could be more inclined to offer unsavory characters various concessions in exchange for votes, keeping the peace or achieving other objectives for that matter.
Imran Khan, Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf
Who is he? Imran Khan is a former captain of the Pakistan cricket team, philanthropist, and now chairman of his own political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). His claim to represent a new style of politics is somewhat disingenuous. He follows a long line of South Asian celebrities turned politicians whose personage offers unquestionable advantages in an otherwise complicated political landscape. But his popular appeal is legitimate. Khan has managed to deliver thousands of people at numerous countrywide rallies around the 2013 elections despite the fact that PTI only ever held one seat in the National Assembly..
What does he want? The PTI's meteoric rise in popularity over the past couple of years has raised suspicions that it enjoys some kind of support from the security establishment, and therefore would simply serve as a mouthpiece for military interests in domestic and foreign affairs. But a simpler answer is perhaps more logical - that Khan has truly tapped into a desire for change in Pakistan, similar to the circumstances surrounding the Qadri march on Islamabad in January, and is keen to see how far it will take him.
Pro: Khan's call for an overhaul of status quo politics in Pakistan is a welcome one, particularly among urban, educated middle class voters in Punjab. The party manifesto calls for an end to "VIP culture" in Pakistan, noting that corruption at the highest levels has made democratic institutions "the focus of public scorn and ridicule." It is hard to disagree with PTI's message when Pakistan consistently ranks among the world's most corrupt nations.
Con: Despite PTI's existence as a party for almost sixteen years now, both the party's manifesto and its leader are untested. Rumors of its internal leadership challenges, weak presence at the provincial level, and Khan's periodic media stunts (i.e. the march to Waziristan), should raise questions about PTI's ability to deliver on its ambitious agenda for change.
As the competition between Zardari, Sharif and Khan unfolds over the next several months, other personalities and institutions will also contend to shape and influence the electoral outcome. Let's not forget the likes of Tahir-ul Qadri, activist Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the military, and even the media, all of whom have a say in who leads the next government. In a place where personalities dominate politics, Zardari, Sharif and Khan clearly stand out, but vested interests combined with the rise of new forces of change can put a serious spanner in the works.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images; KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images
It has been a complicated week for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government. Out of the blue, Tahir ul Qadri, a retired politician and Canada-based preacher led thousands of people on a long march from Lahore to Islamabad demanding immediate regime change. If that wasn't enough, the Supreme Court ordered Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf arrested on corruption charges. All of this after the PPP dismissed the provincial government in Balochistan over a militant attack that killed 100 Shi'a Muslims.
Before all of this, most Pakistan watchers had assumed that with just two months left, the PPP was on its way to making history as the first civilian government to complete a full term. It appears, however, that the recent confluence of events has introduced a pressure too great for the PPP to withstand. After a lengthy negotiation, Qadri and a team of government ministers issued the Islamabad Long March Declaration. The government offered several concessions to Qadri, the most significant of which are that "the National Assembly shall be dissolved at any time before March 16, 2013" and that the government "in complete consensus with Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) will propose names of two honest and impartial persons for appointment as Caretaker Prime Minister."
Did Zardari and the PPP lose? Yes and no.
No one expected a government led by Asif Ali Zardari to make it this far. The former prisoner, alleged kidnapper and extortionist, son-of-a-cinema-owner, secret stroke victim, and Cheshire cat-grinning widower of a two-time Prime Minister doesn't necessarily match the profile of a deft politician. But the man is a survivor, with instincts that have translated into an unexpected political ability to build coalitions, offer concessions, and broker agreements that have taken the PPP government further in its term than any other government in Pakistan's history.
Despite this ability, the government still managed to make enemies. While not uncommon in Pakistani politics, the mudslinging during the PPP's term has been especially dirty. Supreme Court efforts to unseat Zardari on corruption charges proved unsuccessful last year but the judiciary got its way with the removal of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on contempt of court charges. This week, the court went after Ashraf for a different issue - alleged corruption in rental power projects when serving as Minister for Water and Power. Ashraf hasn't been convicted of any crime yet and can remain in office until found guilty. The PPP coalition, with its majority in the National Assembly, could simply elect another Prime Minister from its ranks, just like it did when Gilani was dismissed.
But the Qadri march has shifted the political balance by providing an opportunity for the judiciary, and other critics of the government like Imran Khan and the military, to either jump on the regime change bandwagon or to tacitly support it by watching from the sidelines. All of them want a say in who heads the caretaker government. Until now, as mandated by the 20th amendment, the government and the main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), have been negotiating the caretaker government framework, which must be in place up to ninety days before elections if the government calls elections before its term is up. Qadri's very specific demands echo the views of other political actors who believe they have a stake in the PPP-PML-N discussions, regardless of whether the constitution mandates their participation or not. They will now have their say through Qadri, whose political party will help determine who leads the next caretaker government.
Always the strategic dealmaker, Zardari weighed the two options in front of him: keep fighting or accelerate the elections cycle. He could have continued to ignore Qadri's demands, claiming the PPP is a victim of a military-judicial conspiracy. Playing the "political martyrdom" card would resonate well among the PPP base and with critics of both the military and Supreme Court. But the government likely felt too bombarded from all sides to make the same bold moves it has in the past; the perception that Qadri is backed by the security establishment also may have factored into Zardari's decision making.
Instead, Zardari chose to accelerate the elections cycle. The National Assembly and Senate are now scheduled to meet on January 21st to discuss next steps. Doing so would still offer the government some influence in the caretaker setup but exactly how much influence remains to be seen. It would be naïve to assume that the Supreme Court, Qadri, and the military would automatically drop their anti-government efforts once elections are scheduled. Surely such stringent critics of the PPP would only call it a day when they get what they want - which seems to be ensuring that the country's ruling political party has zero chance of leading the next government.
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Tahir-ul Qadri, a Canada-based Pakistani preacher and former politician leads a massive protest today from Lahore to Islamabad calling for regime change in Pakistan. If it is electoral change Qadri is looking for, he won't be the one to get it. Qadri's been politically irrelevant since he departed the scene in 2004, when he resigned from his post as a Member of the National Assembly. Qadri himself does not even occupy a seat in Parliament, nor does anyone in his party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek.
However, his religious organization Tehrik Minhaj-ul-Quran, is a force to be reckoned with. The organization has an expansive school network in Punjab and maintains massive support among Pakistanis attracted to his meshing of modern values with conservative Islam. But this following was not enough for Qadri to deliver the "millions" of protesters he promised.
Could Qadri be another Imran Khan prototype, informally sponsored by the military? At least Khan can deliver the people. Despite the lackluster showing at today's march, we should not overlook the meaning behind Qadri's interestingly timed, well-organized and well-funded return. He says he wants to put "true democracy on track," but Qadri comes at a time when the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led government and the main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), are near agreement on the timing of elections and the caretaker government setup, a process bolstered by the 20th amendment that mandates the government's cooperation with the opposition in setting up a neutral caretaker government in advance of elections.
In addition to seeking specific changes, such as ensuring electoral candidates pay their taxes before running for a seat, Qadri's push for a caretaker government in lieu of the current regime resonates with some in the security establishment who had been rumored to be informally floating the idea last year of installing temporary leaders a la Bangladesh in the mid-1990s. Supporters of the idea believe such moves are justified on by the PPP's poor performance and corruption.
Today's atmosphere is also reminiscent of the period before Senate elections in March 2011, when speculation arose that Pakistan's military was working to deny the PPP control of the upper house. This time, with elections expected before June and with the military openly displeased with both of the possible winners - the PPP the PML-N - there is a strong perception among political analysts that the military is up to its old tricks again. While we can't prove it, and the military claims to be just as surprised as the rest of us with Qadri's return, it has intervened in politics numerous times. The country has experienced over 30 years of military rule since independence in 1947. No reason it cannot happen again.
Or is there? Real regime change through Qadri, or through the military for that matter, is highly unlikely at the moment. He does have the ambition, political network and wealth to bring the long march into existence. But if Qadri has made a deal with the military, he may be overestimating its depth of interest and capability in shaping the election outcome in the current political environment. Political engineering by the Army and other branches of the military could exacerbate considerable domestic frustrations about the military leadership's failure to address Pakistan's growing terrorism problem. Furthermore, key foreign partners like the United States would be hard pressed to look the other way if Army chooses to meddle. Finally, the Supreme Court has been sending warning signs to the military to stay out of the elections process. Last year, it ordered legal proceedings against former intelligence and army officials, alleging they bankrolled politicians to prevent the PPP from winning the 1990 election.
Speculating on the military's connections to Qadri is unavoidable, but it is not the only issue Qadri brings to the fore. Something else much more tangible and visible is at work, and that is the desperate desire of ordinary Pakistanis for change - the change that Americans saw in 2008 when they elected their first African-American president; the change that the Arab world experienced when their military dictatorships collapsed; and the spirit of change infused within the international Occupy movement against social and economic inequality.
Qadri's message is appealing because it taps into the international sentiment of change associated with these and other developments over the past several years - sentiment that is clearly alive and well in Pakistan. But instead of potentially delaying the elections cycle, Qadri's ability to mobilize and influence would be more helpful after the PPP government completes its term this year in a historic moment for the entire country: the first time a government in Pakistan finishes a complete term.
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