Pakistan: Back to Political Shenanigans

A couple of months is a long time in Pakistani politics. After the call for resignation of the President, Mr Asif Zardari for his sojourn abroad during the floods in August, political shenanigans are once again haunting the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led coalition government in Islamabad as two partners have walked out.  The wily survivor that he is Mr Zardari has moved swiftly to win over support of Mr Nawaz Sharif but how long remains to be seen.

The government received an expected setback when on 14 December; Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani sacked Minister for Religious Affairs Hamid Saeed Kazmi and Minister for Science and Technology Azam Swati reportedly for infighting over corruption in the recent Hajj arrangements.  The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) quit the coalition over dismissal of its member, Azam Swati. Housing and Works Minister Rehmatullah Kakar and Tourism and Culture Minister Maulana Ataur Rehman also resigned and the Jamiat sought to sit in the opposition putting the government in the first crisis during the month. 

The main shock came once the Mohajir Qaumi Movement [MQM] with 25 seats pulled out ministers from the government but continued to stay in coalition and if reports are to be believed has now walked out of it.  This has raised fears of the government falling into minority.      

A count of the parties in the National Assembly would reveal the possibility of survival or otherwise of the government. The PPP needs a simple majority of 171 members in the 340 seats filled in the National Assembly as of 6 December [Total 342]. As is seen from the Table below, if the MQM pulls out and goes over to the opposition it would have 187 members 4 less than the required numbers for a majority. The opposition with 148 seats can form a government if the MQM joins hands with it as it would have 173 seats. 

However recent statements by the PML N and the MQM leadership slandering each other are unlikely to make that a possibility. Moreover the two main parties, PML N and the PML Q are bitter rivals the latter being a break away which was in power under the regime of former General Pervez Musharraf who had exiled Mr Nawaz Sharif the PML N Chief. Thus the arithmetic of politics indicates that the PPP should be able to survive unless Independents or the ANP decide to leave which is unlikely. The other option is mid term elections for which the parties are really not ready and would not like to face the voters. 

Pakistan National Assembly Party Position 6 December : Total Seats 340

Parties Government Parties Opposition
PPP 127 PML N   89
MQM   25 PML Q   51
ANP   13 MMA     8
Independents   19
PML F     5
NPP    1
BNP A    1
PPP Sherpao    1
Total 192 148

Note the figures may change with members moving from one side to another.
[Source: Elections Commission of Pakistan]
This apart the MQM is possibly playing hard to get to force the government into a corner given the negative image that it has acquired over the years of misrule and corruption. While the Prime Minister in an attempt to clean up the administration had dismissed the ministers this led to withdrawal of support by the JUI F, a group comprising of right wing religious parties. The MQM saw its own opportunity. These opportunistic forces may also take the advantage of the dissonance over the new sales tax proposals that the government is planning to impose to advantage.        

As per media reports there have been behind the scenes discussions with the British Prime Minister ringing up Mr Zardari and therefore there was hope for some reconciliation with the MQM, as the Party Chief Mr Altaf Hussain operates from Britain and the British have some say.
President Asif Ali Zardari ever the suave political leader is also in touch with different political groups including the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz chief Nawaz Sharif. The Army so far has been silent and will only move in if there is an imminent collapse. The two main parties, the PPP and the PML N have a combined interest to keep the Army out but how this will be managed remains to be seen. In case political parties show weakness or further signs of a split, options would open up including mid term elections, which none of the political parties may want at this stage with monumental problems facing the country. Therefore it would appear that a compromise may be worked out rather than going to the hustings, what that compromise is remains to be seen.
In the end political bargaining may intensify with the MQM and the JUI F reported to have decided to work in tandem to exert maximum pressure on the PPP for acceptance of their demands. The PPP has indicated that it would attempt to remove the differences with the MQM and JUI-F. One demand is that of resignation of the Prime Minister Mr Gilani and the PPP if overstretched may go in for Prime Minister Gilani’s removal or resignation. So what would possibly emerge is a coalition with a new prime minister. But for this the Army would have to be on board as given the current powers that the Prime Minister has in Pakistan the Army would like to ensure that its candidate is there in the chair. Mr Gillani was one who was largely acceptable to it so far. So if the Army comes into play there may be some more complications in the days ahead.
An additional pressure on the government is the controversy over Blasphemy laws. Among countries with a Muslim-majority, Pakistan has the strictest anti-blasphemy laws. The Criminal Code provides penalties for blasphemy up to death and a fine. An accusation of blasphemy commonly subjects the accused, police, lawyers, and judges to harassment, threats, and attacks. An accusation is sometimes the prelude to vigilantism and rioting. The opponents of repealing Blasphemy laws are threatening to launch an agitation and are also putting pressure on the President not to pardon a woman Ms Asiya Bibi facing a death sentence in a blasphemy case.
Despite all these pressures, Mr Asif Zardari  may survive with his proverbial political skills and as no one really wants to topple the apple cart at this juncture with monumental political, economic and security challenges facing the country. 


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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