As the days wind down to the national and provincial assemblies elections in Pakistan on February 18, the one man on the political scene who is not in fact running faces the serious prospect that he may end up in the losing column. President Pervez Musharraf, sans his general’s uniform and the rank and power of Chief of Army Staff, appears increasingly to be the single most important issue on which Pakistanis citizens at large and the political parties that are hoping to make a comeback are focused. Having transformed Pakistan from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system in which he controls the levers of political power, he resorted late last year to extra-constitutional measures to have himself re-elected president and then shed his uniform. Later, he got his own compliant supreme court to ratify all his extra-legal measures. But, if current public opinion trends hold up, he may well lose his hold on the country.
The rising unhappiness with Musharraf has allowed the opposition Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to coalesce against him. Meanwhile numerous polls conducted by local and foreign agencies appear to signal a rising wave of disappointment with Musharraf’s regime, with more than two-thirds of Pakistanis calling for his immediate resignation.
Of the issues that have helped focus the negative sentiments against him are inflation, which is rampant and rising, and lack of security. An unseemly public spat between the Finance Minister and the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan that acts as the guardian of the monetary policy on measures to control inflation has added to the public’s confusion. On the security front, the government has lost ground continuously since last year, ceding territory not only in the badlands of the North West Frontier Province to the homegrown neo-Taliban but also in the heartland of that province and elsewhere.
Even the Interior Ministry acknowledges that of the 64,175 polling stations are being set up for Monday’s elections almost one-third 19,380 have been declared ‘sensitive’, that is dangerous and demanding the presence of police, paramilitary rangers, and even the army to provide security. Of these, the number of ‘most sensitive polling stations’ stands at 8,928 — 3,787 in Punjab, 1,575 in Sindh, 1,094 in the NWFP, 1,350 in Balochistan and 1,122 in FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that abut Afghanistan).
The Interior Ministry spokesman, according to a report in DAWN newspaper, deemed some areas in the NWFP, Balochistan, FATA, and Sindh as ‘high-risk’. They are Swat, Shangla, Lower Dir, Malakand Agency, Hangu and Tank and Bannu in the NWFP; South Waziristan Agency, North Waziristan Agency, Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency, FR Kohat, Darra Adam Khel and Bannu in FATA; parts of the riverine belt known as Kacha Area in Sindh; and Kohlu, Dera Bugti and Killa Abdullah in Balochistan. These are probably the areas where the regular army will be deployed, to provide security but not to help conduct the polling, a point that the new army chief has underlined repeatedly.
To add to the public deep concern about safety, there has been a rise in terrorist actions against the Pakistan army at its very heart, in Rawalpindi, the garrison city next to Islamabad where the army headquarters re located. There is broad agreement that these attacks have been prompted by Islamist militants angered by Musharraf’s take-over of the Red Mosque in a bitter shoot-out last year in the heart of Islamabad. So, he has now become the lightning rod for attack on the armed forces. Further, elections rallies of the mainstream Awami National Party have been hit with suicide bombings in the NWFP.
Musharraf must have been unhappy to read about the meetings held by his erstwhile political ally Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and head of the Pakistan Muslim League Q group (known widely as the King’s Party because it supported Musharraf) with the religious leader of the Red Mosque militants, who is in prison. Hussain is reported to have suggested that he would try to get him released but failed to make a deal with the incarcerated Mullah. Meanwhile, the Secretary General of the PML Q, Mushahid Hussain (not related to his party chief), appeared to distance himself from Musharraf’s policies by suggesting that the leaders of the lawyers’ movement, including the Pakistan Peoples’ Party leader Aitzaz Ahsan, be freed.
If the pre-rigging that is being widely alleged does not take hold and derail the electoral process on February 18, and instead people cast their ballots freely on the basis of the deteriorating economic situation and inflation on the one hand and the lack of security on the other, Musharraf may end up being the biggest loser when the results are announced. Under that scenario, the opposition parties may garner enough seats to overturn many of his fiats of dubious legal validity of the recent past. This time around, he may not have the coercive power of the army behind him, an army whose new chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has been signaling a shift in its internal priorities from political involvement to professionalism. Musharraf may thus find himself isolated and abandoned by his supporters. If the PML Q manages to eke out a win then street protests may erupt across the country, adding to the violence from terrorism
The prospects for change loom large on the Pakistani political scene in the weeks ahead.
Posted on The Huffington Post, 14 February 2008