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News Analysis
Benazir’s Faustian bargain
By Sushant Sareen

Under tremendous pressure to coopt Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in his political game-plan, Gen Pervez Musharraf has conceded to a major demand of Benazir by offering a National Reconciliation Ordinance which will provide indemnity against cases of corruption to all politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. Musharraf has also conceded partially on the issue of the uniform by promising to quit as army chief if elected president. At the same time, he has held out on Benazir’s demand for removing the bar on a third term as prime minister. Nor has he agreed to scrap the powers of the president to dismiss the government and dissolve the assemblies under article 58 (2) (b) of the constitution. Any concession on these two demands will lead to the disintegration of not only the current ruling coalition, but also General Musharraf’s plans of getting elected president for another term.

The partial concessions made to Benazir Bhutto have created a dilemma for her. The withdrawal of the corruption cases against her means that Benazir can return to Pakistan without the fear of going straight to jail from the airport. This is a major concession, one that allows her to campaign freely in the general election. If she wins these elections, she can always use her majority to remove the bar on a third term as prime minister. And if she doesn’t have the numbers and has to sit in opposition then this bar is of no consequence to her. Of course, if she has to enter into a coalition with the motley crew supporting Musharraf then again the bar is of no consequence because her coalition partners will never agree to her leading such a government.

More than the bar on her becoming prime minister again, Benazir is more interested in removing article 58 (2) (b) which will hang like a Damocles sword over her head if she manages to form the next government. She knows that if left to the next assembly, neither the opposition nor her coalition partners will allow its abrogation simply because this article keeps open the possibility of intriguing against the government and bringing it down pre-maturely.

Adding to Benazir’s predicament is the fact that by entering into a deal with General Musharraf she will be bailing out a deeply unpopular military ruler. This will not only give a degree of political legitimacy to Musharraf but also undermine her own political standing. What is more, any power-sharing agreement between Benazir and Musharraf will force her to co-habit with him and become his political face, a role that the Q League is playing currently. Therefore, even if she strikes a deal with the military regime, she will continue to put up a façade of being opposed to Musharraf both to keep her party from breaking up and to maintain her image as a crusader for democracy, at least until the elections are over. This she will do by not coming out in open support of the General but also not doing anything that adds to his political problems.

Benazir’s argument that she is negotiating with the army to ensure a smooth transition to democracy is as disingenuous as the ruling Pakistan Muslim League’s stand that electing General Musharraf as president in uniform will ensure continuity of democracy in Pakistan. Of all the people in Pakistan, at least Benazir should know that any deal she cuts with the army will only give the impression of a transition without changing the power equations. The army makes a deal only to get out of a sticky situation and not because it has a change of heart and mind about not interfering in politics of the country. Moreover, even after the army returns to the barracks, it only allows the civilians to occupy important positions but does not allow them to exercise power. On crucial issues like relations with India, nuclear programme, and the policy on Afghanistan, the army calls the shots and the civilians only endorse and follow the policy line set by the Army.

The sort of transition that Benazir is trying to bring about will once again result in the rule of the troika in which the president, prime minister and army chief will rule the country. In this set-up, the prime minister will be the weakest player unless he can get either the president or the army chief on his side. With Musharraf as president, the prime minister will have to get the army chief on his side if he wants to take on the president. Not only will this be difficult, it will also make the army chief’s position pivotal as both the president and the prime minister will seek his support to bolster their own position. The result will be that the army’s involvement in political affairs will be inbuilt in the system that seeks to make a transition from open army rule to a veiled army rule. Hence the fundamental question: transition to what?

Benazir Bhutto’s obviously believes that if she can get Musharraf to shed his uniform, she will get the space she needs to de-fang him and make him ineffective and irrelevant. On his part, Musharraf too is negotiating with Benazir Bhutto because it suits him. For one, Benazir political credibility will have been severely compromised and it is unlikely she can win an election (even a free and fair one) without Musharraf’s support. Her dependence on Musharraf will leave him free to manipulate elections according to his liking. At the very least, Musharraf will ensure an election result that throws up a hung House, one in which he and his current supporters will hold the balance of power.

Benazir, however, appears convinced that with the Americans underwriting her deal with Musharraf she has protected her flanks. What she doesn’t realize is that the Americans want the deal not because they want a transition to democracy but because they think it will allow Musharraf to rule the roost for some more time. The Americans are trying to perpetuate Musharraf’s rule rather than usher in a democratic dispensation. As far as the Americans are concerned, if Benazir Bhutto is not willing to cohabit with Musharraf, then they really have no use for her. And her utility for the Americans will be even less if Musharraf is able to get out of the political cul-de-sac he finds himself currently. What is worse, the Americans are working overtime for a deal because they feel that this will strengthen liberal forces in Pakistan. But the mere hint of American hand in such a deal, as well as the fact that two pro-American leaders are coming together will have exactly the opposite effect of what the Americans are trying to achieve.

The big issue in Pakistan’s politics is no longer General Musharraf’s uniform. The real issue is whether or not Pakistan will have genuine, undiluted, un-distorted democracy in which the civilians decide all the affairs of the state. Will Pakistan continue to have a two-party system in which the army (which is the largest political party in Pakistan) and the politicians take turns to run (or should one say, ruin) the country, or will Pakistan have a system in which the civilians decide how the affairs of state will be conducted? If it’s the former then Benazir is on the right track. But if it’s the latter, then there is no option before Benazir except to lead a political struggle and a peoples’ movement.

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