People have remarked that Pakistan created history when its first elected government actually completed its legal tenure, with fresh elections set for May. Indeed, Asif Zardari-led Pakistan People’s Party government’s record of missed opportunities is long. It has lost so much credibility that what ought to have been a moment of celebration is instead one of concern and caution over what lies ahead.
The PPP cannot be written off in the coming election because it has substantial pockets of support across various provinces. But it deserves some sympathy. After Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, the PPP was saddled with her husband Asif Zardari, who has not had an easy time with the media which had deemed him corrupt from day one or the judiciary and the military which have foiled all his efforts to come up with bold policies.
Zardari was forced to spend most of his time surviving despite the forces arrayed against him. The PPP government’s slate is not entirely blank. It managed to pass the 18th amendment that rolled back powers accumulated by dictator presidents like Pervez Musharraf and Zia-ul-Haq.
Thrice Zardari attempted to check the Pakistan Army but failed. The first was in July 2008 when he sought to put the dreaded Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) under the Interior Ministry. But he withdrew his order within hours following the Army’s anger.
The second, when he declared that Pakistan would be willing to adopt a ‘no first use’ nuclear posture, but the idea was shelved after the Army’s opposition. The last, and most dramatic, was when Zardari was involved in the so-called Memogate affair: after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, he allegedly plotted with Pakistan's ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani to get the US to control the Pakistan Army. The Army hit back, Haqqani was forced to resign, and Zardari beat a hasty retreat.
As of now, the party likely to come out ahead is the PML(N) which has been waiting for the elections instead of trying to take advantage of Zardari’s many missteps. One reason is that its chief Nawaz Sharif, initially a creation of the Army, has fallen out with his former mentors after Musharraf’s 1999 coup threatened to hang him. Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz has led the PML(N) coalition that has controlled Pakistan’s most important province of Punjab. He has taken the precaution of keeping everyone, especially the Islamist parties, happy.
The prospects of third parties like Imran Khan’s and Musharraf’s are not very bright, though the former may do well in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because he has opposed the US drone strikes and promised to end military operations in KP. In the current election campaign, the PML(N) has its work cut out. Sharif’s emphasis is on economic growth and reform. He has declared that his last stint saw Pakistan conducting nuclear explosions, and this time he will set off “economic bombs” for prosperity. As of now, it is clear the PML(N) will sweep Punjab and do better in KP, Balochistan and Sind.
His return could lead to interesting developments. He will have the authority to appoint the new Army chief to succeed General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani when he retires this year. He will appoint the next chief justice of Pakistan as the irksome Ifthikar Muhammad Chaudhury also retires this year. It would have important consequences for India-Pakistan relations. People close to Sharif say his point of departure will be 1999 when he was overthrown by Musharraf. This was the time when he signed the Lahore Declaration with India along with an MoU spelling out a slew of far-reaching confidence building measures.
The troublesome issue is the PML(N)’s close ties with Islamist groups. Having said all this, we need to keep Pakistan’s volatility in mind. There have been so many twists in its recent history that it would be a brave person who would confidently forecast its future.
Manoj Joshi is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Reasearch Foundation, Delhi