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There is a buzz on the streets of Lahore where I spent four days last week, engaged in a Track-2 dialogue between retired military officers and civil servants from India and Pakistan. Laughing in the face of the “failing state” narrative, which is the global impression of Pakistan, Lahore looks better than I have ever seen it before. Clean, green and bustling with the Punjabi energy of old, the Lahori street sends out three unambiguous, messages: firstly, the “basket-case” story of the Pakistani economy is one-sided; since 70 per cent of the economy is in the informal sector, micro-boom co-exists with macro-bust. The second message, from millionaire and minion alike, is that India is more opportunity than enemy. Thirdly, and this is unusual given the government’s spectacular non-performance, the Pakistani people firmly believe that their army should remain in its barracks.
Global headlines tend to depict President Asif Ali Zardari as a precariously poised schemer, occupied in lining his pockets and manipulating Pakistani justice to keep his Swiss accounts undisturbed. There may be some truth in that, but the average Pakistani also acknowledges Mr Zardari as a skilled politician and a democrat who has skilfully dribbled around the Opposition, the Islamists, the military and the judiciary, even when all of them have opposed him in concert. Many Lahoris, by definition supporters of Nawaz Sharif (11 of Lahore’s 13 elected legislators are from his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz), allow Mr Zardari credit for steering his political alliance doggedly towards what would be an unprecedented landmark in March 2013: an elected government completing its full five-year term.
This achievement, if it happens, will do much to nurture a democratic ethos in Pakistan. Given that Mr Zardari himself and his Pakistan Peoples Party-led government have pursued a determined course of improved relations with New Delhi, even through objections from the security establishment, India must politically scrutinise this unlikely democrat’s unexpected success.
If a single critical element has ensured Mr Zardari’s survival, it is his success in creating a stable political coalition and keeping it together through a succession of crises. Respected Pakistani political scientist Hasan-Askari Rizvi suggests that political power in that country today ebbs and flows along four major axes: the ruling alliance, the Opposition, the military and (since 2008) the judiciary. Exercising influence to a lesser degree are the religious parties and the jihadi groups.
The ruling alliance, led by Mr Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP), includes Altaf Hussain’s predominantly mohajir (migrants from India) Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM); Asfandyar Wali Khan’s predominantly Pakhtun Awami National Party (ANP); and a handful of smaller parties. With a narrow majority in the 342-seat National Assembly, this coalition has miraculously held together.
The Pakistan army has challenged the government on several occasions, most recently during the “memogate” crisis last year, when Mr Zardari was accused of seeking Washington’s support against a military coup after the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Each time, however, Mr Zardari has stared down the generals. In the good old days a military coup might have followed, but today the military does not want to disturb the status quo. Firstly, the generals have little appetite for tackling Pakistan’s complex social, political and economic issues. The public, too, has lost its taste for khaki solutions; there is none of the naïve public confidence of the 1950s and 1960s that the Pakistan army would ride in on horseback and sweep away the problems. Secondly, the military needs political backing for its ongoing anti-terrorist operations against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the tribal agencies of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Through years of failed peace deals, the Pakistan army has realised that this campaign is unavoidable for Pakistan’s survival.
Only three major political parties support military operations in the tribal areas: the three big parties of the ruling coalition. Nawaz Sharif and his PML(N) have maintained a craven ambiguity on terrorism. The naïve and simplistic Imran Khan argues that the tribal agencies will return to normal once American forces depart the region. Pakistan’s military, fortunately, now knows better. The word from within is that operations will continue long after America pulls out from Afghanistan.
The Opposition is a divided house, with the jihad-ambiguous Nawaz Sharif, the jihad-friendly Imran Khan, and the jihad-supporting Islamist parties all competing for the same vote in the coming elections. In the 2008 elections, which were boycotted by Mr Khan’s and the religious parties, Mr Sharif reaped the fruits of growing Punjabi support for militant groups like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. This time, however, that vote would be split three ways. Mr Zardari would obviously benefit, given the PPPP’s support base all across Pakistan. Having gained control of the electoral colleges in the general elections, he would be well poised for the presidential elections next September.
His only challenger at present appears to be Mr Sharif. But the Punjab-centric PML(N) must first sweep its home province (which has 183 of the National Assembly’s 342 seats) and then garner independents to cobble together a majority. Mr Sharif will take cheer from the declining fortunes of Imran Khan, who seemed to genuinely believe that he was riding a tsunami before reality dawned. Insiders say that Mr Khan’s early success was thanks to the last chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt Gen Shuja Pasha, who boosted him to build pressure on Mr Zardari. The current ISI chief, Lt Gen Zaheer-ul-Islam, a dry spymaster who focuses on intelligence rather than politics, has reportedly left Mr Khan high and dry.
Is President Zardari all but poised for another term as president? Yes, if the elections were today. But in Pakistan, as in India, six months is a political lifetime.