Who is the front runner in Pakistan politics? Political pundits are predicting a Musharraf-Hafiz Saeed alliance to pocket more seats and power in Pakistan. The new alliance will undermine the edifice of democracy….writes Rifan Ahmed Khan
These are early days for new political alignments in Pakistan which will elect a new government later this year. But from what is in the works, a Musharraf-Saeed alliance appears a possibility. And if it happens, it would signal the coming of age of the mullah-military takeover of Pakistan for the second time in its seven decade long history.
Writes Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, a leading Pakistani journalist, in The Diplomat: “It might still be premature to read too much into former military dictator Gen (R) Pervez Musharraf talking about a political alliance with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its offshoot Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). Not because these groups are officially banned in Pakistan, but because Musharraf is a largely irrelevant political entity these days. However, events of recent weeks suggest that the unlikely merger of the Musharraf-led ‘grand alliance of 23 political parties’ with the Hafiz Saeed-led proscribed groups would perfectly symbolize the mullah-military takeover of Pakistan”.
Look at the unfolding scenario since early December.
The Lahore High Court (LHC) has ordered the release of Saeed from his ten-month long house arrest. The review board cited lack of evidence as the key reason for the order. Not that the detention had in any way stymied the stride of Hafeez Saeed, the master mind of 2008 Mumbai mayhem.
The sham detention was Pakistan’s military way of pleasing the Americans ( in the days before President Trump’s New Year Tweet), who are worried about the spreading tentacles of Saeed from the Middle East to Australia and Africa under the aegis of his new outfit, FIF.
Saeed’s release coincided with two other developments.
Milli Muslim League, (MML), the political party he had floated along with likeminded religious parties and militant groups has made an impressive debut in a by-election. Well, the party did not win the ballot but came close to doing so. He has since confirmed that his MML would contest the 2018 election. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has not yet formally registered MML. That is because the PML-N government deemed it fair and proper to object to the exercise.
The other development that has a bearing on Pakistan scene was seize a radical Islamist group, Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, (TLY), had staged at the doors of capital, Islamabad. The political leadership watched from sidelines, and did not come in the way of the show on the spacious plea that they did not want unnecessary bloodshed in the streets. Officially the military leadership went along with the argument. But from what is in public domain, it is clear that the GHQ was the brain behind the planning and execution of the TLY show. Whatever lingering doubts are there have been set at rest by a video that shows Rangers, a para military force under the Army control, handing out cash coupons to the TLY protester- cadres.
Needless to say, all this is a self-inflicted wound of the Pakistan Muslim League–N. Nawaz Sharif, a one-time darling of the military establishment, is paying the price for not kowtowing to the GHQ and his campaign to target his betenoire, Gen Pervez Musharraf. The former dictator has won his reprieve from a possible jail term on charges of treason with the direct intervention of the GHQ on his behalf, and has been living abroad, earning dollars on the lecture circuit.
Musharraf wants to stage a comeback in Islamabad; and, having tasted political power once, he has begun to entertain Alnaskar dreams. His tie-up with the MQM came to a naught despite the blessings of the military establishment. Now he is eyeing an alliance with Hafeez Saeed, who is one of the long-time protégés of the ISI. The short point is that Pakistan military is working on pump priming the Mullah Empire with a clear design. And it is to cut at the roots of PML-N.
“For the military establishment, bolstering these Islamist groups not only dents the vote bank of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which 12 months ago was the overwhelming favourite to win the 2018 elections with an even bigger majority. Giving formal political shape to the decades-old mullah-military nexus also further aids the military’s strategic interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir,” says Diplomat’s columnist.
This is where Musharraf comes into some symbolic reckoning. His joining hands with Hafiz Saeed will represent a mega coalition of Islamists and the fringe parties that he already has on board. Will such a coalition become the darling of Pakistani voters? About this a little while later.
First about another player, who enjoys significant Army backing. He is Tahir-ul-Qadri. He heads Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT). Qadri returned to Pakistan from his favourite perch in Canada some three years ago at the behest of the then Army Chief, Gen Pervez Kayani. He, along with playboy-turned politician, Imran Khan, had staged a four-month long volatile demonstration in Islamabad in 2014 in what was the first public campaign of the Army through ISI to cut Nawaz Sharif to size.
Right now, Qadri has turned his guns on the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif to overthrow the PML –N government in Lahore. Shehbaz Sharif is known to be on friendly terms with the GHQ. Yet, his scalp will be the price for remaining loyal to Nawaz and for his entreaties to Saudi Arabia to work out a bail out deal for the Sharif family.
The weapon Qadri is brandishing is the report on 2014 Model Town killings that has indicted the Shehbaz government. Qadri’s quixotic politics have often drifted away from a principled demand for justice and towards political machinations for decidedly less salutary reasons, according to Dawn, which sees justification for its assessment in Qadri’s announcement that PAT and allied parties “will seek not just the ouster of the PML-N’s governments in Punjab and at the centre but also the end of the PML-N as a political party”.
So its conclusion: “ Either Mr Qadri is seeking revenge against the Sharifs, a family he was once close to politically, or he is being encouraged by anti-democratic forces to try and destabilise the political landscape”. (Dawn, editorial, Jan 10, 2018). Historically speaking, religious parties have not fared well at the hustings as solo players in Pakistan.
A coalition of religious parties that made its appearance during the Zia era, Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, (IJI), was an establishment-backed political alliance against the Benazir Bhutto-led People’s Party of Pakistan, PPP. It was formed after doling out money to the politicians, which caused the PPP’s defeat in the 1990 general elections.
Much later during Musharraf era came the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). Like IJI, it had a short shelf life. And whatever success came their way was primarily attributable to their status as the King’s Party.
Musharraf during his heydays had his own King’s Party. Once he was out of the Presidential Palace, it suffered ignominy as the voters rejected it outright. Since he has become an Overseas Pakistani, his party is unlikely to fare any better in the forthcoming general election.
It is difficult to crystal gaze the electoral fortunes of MML though. The possibility of history repeating to the dismay of Hafiz Saeed and his ilk cannot be ruled out since all said done Pakistani voters are still swayed by Sufiism which is known as folk Islam in the sub-continent.
This leaves the field open to Imran Khan and his PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or Pakistan Movement for Justice) to unleash the long promised Tsunami in Pakistan politics. PTI too is a creation of the permanent establishment of the country
Unlike Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan has not burnt his bridges with the powers that matter. Moreover, he has been steadily working on making inroads into the Sindh, Balochistan, and Punjab besides Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, (KP), where his party hold the sway already.
So, can we construe, as Kunwar Khuldune Shahid’s prognosis in The Diplomat does, that “what the military leadership is ideally looking at is a PTI government with perhaps a Musharraf and/or Saeed-led coalition a part of the opposition – just to rub in who’s actually in charge, if nothing else”.
We may but with a caveat. And it is that if votes are counted in the barracks like during Gen Zia days.
Well, despite all the efforts of the Army and of the Judiciary working at the behest of the Army, Nawaz Sharif is refusing to fade away. His PML-N has just won a by-election to the Punjab Provincial Assembly from Chakwal, a city 131 km (81.5 miles) south-east of the federal capital, Islamabad, 101 km (63 miles) north-east of GHQ base, Rawalpindi, and 208 km (130 miles) from the provincial capital, Lahore.
The victory margin over PTI candidate was impressive at more than 7500 votes. It was less than the lead PML-N used to register in the past. A small comfort to powers that matter, and to the Mullah-Military alliance itching to take over the reins. Probably.