INTERVIEW A look into Pakistan's political future Hassan Abbas
Hassan Abbas , a research fellow at the Belfer Center's Project on Managing
the Atom and International Security Program, Harvard University, and a former
Pakistani government official who served in the administrations of prime
minister Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf, shares his thoughts
with Kaveh Afrasiabi on how the general elections on February 18 will pan out.
Kaveh Afrasiabi: With the parliamentary elections now postponed
to February, who are the likely winners and losers?
Hassan Abbas: In free and fair elections, at the national level
(272 direct seats), the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) [of assassinated former
premier Benazir Bhutto] will win [a majority of seats] -
around 140 or so and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of Nawaz Sharif will get
the second highest number of seats, around 50-60. The PML-Q [king's party
aligned with President Pervez Musharraf] will manage some seats in Punjab
province - 25 at the most - but overall will be routed. The Jamiat
Ulema-e-Islam of Fazlur Rehman, the Awami National Party, the Muttahida Qaumi
Movement and independents will share the remaining seats. Independents will
also play an important role in forming a government, but the PPP and the PML of
Nawaz will be the main players.
If the PML-Q gets more than 25 seats, then it will be a clear sign that the
elections are rigged. In the provinces, Punjab will see the PML-N and secondly
the PPP in a winning position, Northwest Frontier Province apparently will slip
out of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [six-party religious alliance] and ANP will
be an important player in the coalition government along with the PPP. The MMA
will be strong opposition though; In Sindh, the PPP will sweep the election and
the MQM will retain its control of the urban areas and probably the PPP and the
MQM will form a coalition government. In Balochistan, it will be a mix of JUI,
the PML of Nawaz and the PPP and a coalition of all these is likely.
Kaveh Afrasiabi: Benazir Bhutto's void has highlighted the
limitations of personality-based party politics in Pakistan and, yet, the
succession of her son Bilawal confirms the absence of any "paradigm shift" and
rather the continuation of politics as usual. Do you agree?
Hassan Abbas: The PPP is faced with a daunting task to remain
united and this challenge will become acute after the election victory. A lot
depends on Asif Zardari [Bhutto's husband], the new leader, as Bilawal Bhutto
is too young and he will not be involved in the election process at all. Asif
Zardari served a lot of time in jail in the past [12 out of the past 17 years]
without being convicted - so there is sympathy for him in the PPP also.
Secondly, he is a sharp political strategist and understands the political
dynamics of the country quite well. In terms of "politics as usual" the major
political forces have learnt a lot in the last few years and hopefully will not
repeat past mistakes. Religious extremism and dictatorship has damaged the
social fabric of Pakistan hugely and the political leadership will have to
begin from the scratch.
Kaveh Afrasiabi: Is it fair to conclude that despite the
avalanche of criticisms of Musharraf in the wake of Bhutto's assassination, his
hands in controlling the affairs of the country have been strengthened,
particularly since the US is now hard-pressed to find suitable alternatives to
Hassan Abbas: Yes, it appears that Bush administration is
supportive of him on the face of it, but within Pakistan, Musharraf is weakened
by Benazir's death and the pro-judiciary movement. In the violent aftermath of
the recent tragedy, it is likely that army will re-evaluate how far they can go
with Musharraf. I am hearing that top level military leadership is weighing all
options currently. I also feel that within the Washington DC power corridors,
someone must be thinking about why Musharraf couldn't save Benazir or was he
involved in the murder in some way. This is crucial because, after all, the US
had played a role in bringing Benazir and Musharraf together and the US was the
guarantor of the understanding in a way - so if Musharraf breached that
contract or understanding than Bush administration must evaluate what it means
for the future of US-Pakistan cooperation. People in Pakistan have already
started blaming the Bush administration for being hands in glove with Musharraf
in terms of what happened recently.
Kaveh Afrasiabi: Assuming that Musharraf will step down and a new
civil-military balance will be established in Pakistan in the near future, what
changes in Pakistan's foreign policy can we expect in such a scenario?
Hassan Abbas: I think it is predictable that in such a scenario,
Pakistan's relations with its neighbors will improve. That is what history
tells us - Pakistan has not fought any wars when a civilian government was in
place - accept in the case of Kargil confrontation with India [in 1999] when
the army hierarchy acted on its own and didn't take the prime minister into its
confidence till the very end. In my view a democratic transition will certainly
lead to Pakistan's better relations with India, Afghanistan and Iran.
1. Hassan Abbas is a research fellow at the Belfer Center's Project on Managing
the Atom and International Security Program, Harvard University. He is also a
doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts
University. His research interests are Pakistan's nuclear program and the Dr
Abdul Qadeer Khan controversy; religious extremism in South and Central Asia,
and "Islam and the West". He is a former Pakistani government official who
served in the administrations of prime minister Benazir Bhutto (1995-1996) and
President Pervez Musharraf (1999-2000). His latest book, Pakistan's Drift into
Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror (M E Sharpe) has
been on bestseller lists in India and Pakistan and widely reviewed
internationally. His forthcoming book is titled: Sovereignty Belongs to Allah:
Constitutionalism and Human Rights in the Islamic States. He runs
Watandost, which is a blog on Pakistan-related affairs.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.