The messy business of Pakistani politics
“THERE is a whiff of shame, something repugnant, in the cabinet,” says a former minister, who recently left the government. Where to begin? The government has 63 ministers in all, a record number for Pakistan; almost as many as in India, with a population seven times bigger. But unlike in India, Pakistan's ministers take few important decisions. From foreign relations and counter-insurgency in the tribal areas to devolution and civil-service reform, everything that matters is decided in Army House by General Musharraf and his coterie of advisers. The cabinet includes a few key technocrats such as the general's favourite, Mr Aziz, who had little political experience before he was made prime minister in 2004. Mr Aziz cannot control his ministers, who include many opportunists gathered around a clan of conservative Punjabi landowners.
Bhutto and Sharif make unlikely allies
Most of these defected from Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party to join the party that General Musharraf's agents founded for him, Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam), or PML-Q. Pakistanis call it the “king's party”. Other ministers left Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), having been offered inducements or threatened with prosecution for past corruption. Indeed, several had already been convicted. The interior minister, Aftab Sherpao, formerly of the PPP, was in exile in London at the time, having been found guilty of graft. Compelled to declare their assets, Mr Sherpao and eight other ministers recently claimed they owned neither a house nor a car.
The national assembly often fails to get the 25% attendance needed for a quorum. Ministers rarely turn up for the daily “question hour”, when the government is supposed to justify its policies to the opposition. After all, the most important policies are introduced by presidential decree, as ordinances. These can be issued only when parliament is in recess, so it is often suspended. Technically, parliament has to pass an ordinance into law within four months or it becomes void. But as PML-Q and its allies cannot always muster a majority, and do not support General Musharraf's more liberal proposals, this seldom happens. In almost seven years in power, the general has issued 44 ordinances, five of which have been passed into law. The others are renewed by decree every four months—or perhaps not; Pakistanis are rarely informed. Confusion envelops large areas of law, as it envelops parliament. “People are at a loss to know what this parliament does,” says Sherry Rehman, an elegant PPP member who likes to blow her cigarette smoke in the faces of the assembly's mullah members.
So this is a Punch and Judy democracy show, reminiscent of those put on by a succession of earlier uniformed and civilian puppeteers. General Musharraf has proved himself as skilful as any of them. In 2002, three years after seizing power, he held a referendum on his rule in which he got a 98% approval rating. It was so grossly rigged that he apologised on national television for the “excesses” of his supporters. Yet he proceeded to hold general elections in a similar spirit. He cannibalised Mr Sharif's party to staff his new PML-Q. Nominally Pakistan's independence party, the Pakistan Muslim League has been co-opted by successive military rulers, each forming his own faction. The election was contested by six different PMLs.
The PPP, Pakistan's nearest thing to a national political party, was much harder for General Musharraf to co-opt. It was formed in 1967 under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was ousted as prime minister in 1977 by General Muhammed Zia ul-Haq and subsequently hanged. Under the leadership-in-exile of Ms Bhutto, Zulfikar's daughter, the PPP's support has held up surprisingly well. It is strongest in Sindh, the Bhuttos' ancestral land, but to some degree it has become a rallying-flag for all Pakistanis who object to the army's political meddling. Had Ms Bhutto returned from exile to fight the 2002 election, with Mr Sharif's party in ruins, she would have won. General Musharraf kept her out by banning any fugitive from justice from being a candidate and, just to be on the safe side, by stopping anyone from serving more than two terms as prime minister. Both Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif had already held the job twice. He also decreed that the president could dismiss the government.
To rig the election, General Musharraf's supporters used the standard tricks of every incumbent government in Pakistan, as well as some available only to generals. The key to winning elections is to ensure that judges in the provinces are sympathetic, because they appoint the magistrates who conduct the polls in the constituencies. Those who come to power through a coup, like General Musharraf, have a considerable advantage here: they can require senior judges to swear allegiance to them and sack the ones who won't. With the returning officers on his side, the rigger's job is mostly complete. In areas dominated by the opposition, a friendly returning officer may well put polling stations in inaccessible places and select compliant people to staff them. “By the time the stations are placed and the staff-list is done, almost half the work is done,” says Nawabzada Ghazanfar Gul, a PPP candidate from the Punjabi town of Gujrat. His example shows how deeply Pakistani politics is rooted in local power struggles. His clan migrated to Pakistan from Central Asia with the Mughal emperors. His political rivals, Chaudhry Shujaat and various of his relatives, belong to a subcontinental family that has prospered only since Pakistan's creation. Mr Gul describes them as “upstarts, 1947-model”.
Anwar Kamal, a venerable PML-Nawaz politician in Peshawar, offered another example of the importance of local politics. On the evening your correspondent called on him, he had just returned from a huge Pushtun tribal gathering to settle a blood-money claim against his tribe. Asked what had provoked the claim, Mr Kamal explained that he had recently led 4,000 armed tribesmen in an attack on a neighbouring tribe. They flattened a small town and killed 80 people. The fine they incurred for this was $60,000, which Mr Kamal thought was not too bad.
Even though the 2002 election was rigged in favour of the king's party, the PPP won the biggest share of the vote (but not a majority). General Musharraf, in another favourite ploy of army rulers, had made a secret pact with the six biggest Islamic parties, which his agents had organised into an alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). This went against the grain; the mullahs mostly hate each other. But it served them well. United against a divided opposition, and with anti-Americanism running high over the war in Afghanistan, the MMA won 11% of the vote and 53 seats in the national assembly. By badgering and buying ten PPP members, PML-Q formed a coalition government. But it was the MMA's votes that gave General Musharraf the two-thirds majority he needed to change the constitution, thereby legitimising his coup and the scores of ordinances he had issued since seizing power. The MMA was then made leader of the opposition, even though together the PPP and PML-Nawaz formed a bigger block. It also won control of a regional government for the first time, in North-West Frontier Province, and formed a coalition government with PML-Q in Baluchistan.
The one thing that can be said with certainty about the next national election, due in October next year, is that General Musharraf's supporters will rig it. Indeed, having rigged local elections last year, implanting many loyal nazims, they may find this unusually easy to do. Meanwhile General Musharraf says he will remain army chief, even though he had promised the mullahs that he would not. He points out that the constitution entitles him to wear his uniform until the next election—and he should know, because he wrote it. Asked whether the uniform will go after the poll, the president ponders: “I don't know. We'll need to see, we need to cross the bridge when we reach it. I'll take decisions, I'll see the environment, and obviously I wouldn't like to violate the constitution.”
It is almost certain that General Musharraf, and very likely his uniform, will survive the election; but the colour of his next government is less clear. The PML-Q is a feuding mob, able to agree on almost nothing. As president, General Musharraf is supposed to be above party politics, yet he has often intervened to end the bickering. The party also obstructs liberal reform, which embarrasses the general. Moreover, even if Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif remain in exile, the king's party may not win a majority at the polls. And next time the president wants to change the constitution, the MMA's votes may not be available to him. The biggest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, loathes him for breaking his promise to shed his uniform. And internationally, the mullahs' success in 2002 has made it harder for General Musharraf to present himself as an enlightened moderator. The MMA may well splinter.
But if the president has problems, Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif would gladly trade theirs for his. In May they met in London to declare a “Charter of Democracy”, cementing their alliance and vowing, among other things, to return and fight next year's elections. In fact, their alliance is pretty unconvincing. The two leaders dislike and distrust each other. They would probably both make a deal with General Musharraf, accepting him as president, in return for a legal pardon and the dropping of any outstanding charges against them. But the president dislikes them and seems to think he can do without them, saying, “I don't think individuals who have looted and plundered the country have a place to come and govern again.”
In recent weeks, the general has redoubled his efforts to unite the PML-Q. This slightly irks America, which wants him to broaden his political base, preferably by dropping the PML-Q and working with the PPP instead—perhaps minus Ms Bhutto. It might seem cynical to want Pakistan's handful of liberal politicians, whose single achievement has been consistent opposition to army rule, to step into line behind the general. But he is anyway more likely to stick with the PML-Q.
That would be bad for most Pakistanis. The two mainstream parties performed dismally during the 1990s. In power, their rulers were as autocratic and unprincipled as General Musharraf, and more vindictive. They treated parliament with equal disdain, and managed the economy incompetently. In opposition, the respective supporters of each of them badgered the army to undermine the other. Yet they could never exert as much institutional control as General Musharraf is doing. Their candidates therefore had to win elections, rigged though they were, by appealing to voters. In the process, some political patronage percolated down to the villages.
It would be bad, too, for Pakistan's future. Already shaken, the mainstream political parties would be seriously damaged by another round of military-political puppetry. And as they have wilted, the Islamic parties have thrived.