There is one central question, having international consequences, in the month of May: Who will govern Pakistan after the May elections? The question is important as it also leads us to explore the keen internal tussle that lies ahead between the politicians and military leadership in Islamabad.
Pakistanis are casting their vote at a time when the regional geopolitics is extremely fluid. Iran would elect its new president in June this year. Present Pakistani and Iranian presidents have agreed to construct a gas pipeline between the two states, which would be partly financed by the Chinese. The Saudis are not hiding their displeasure with the emerging arrangements, and in this context it is less striking how a leading Saudi press organ has permitted its space for using adjectives like cunning, sly and selfish to describe the present Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari.
Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 severed the Indian link with Central Asia and rarefied its geographical connectivity with the Middle East. Though, Indian elite opinion still remains mute about approaching the Middle East (read Iran) through Pakistan, India would like to reach to the Central Asian markets using the strategic geography of Pakistan. Indian media is casting Nawaz Sharif in favorable terms, and there’s the rub – how do you get to Central Asia through a possible Nawaz Sharif government when his political party is conniving in the elections with militants having links with the Taliban?
With this, and in an anti-clock wise manner, one comes to the Land of Afghans and its impact upon the present Pakistani politics. As the Pakistanis currently think of going to the polls, the Islamabad-Kabul equation is in disarray. For Pakistan, legitimization of its western frontier with Afghanistan is of foremost strategic priority. Primarily for this reason, it has been trying to seek “strategic depth” in Afghanistan over the last four decades.
But, how to deal when Afghan president Hamid Karzai could resist Islamabad’s attempts to project Pakistani power in Afghanistan. Given Karzai’s hailing from the pivotal Afghan tribes of the south, he does have the dangerous capacity to entice the Pashtun political sphere away from Taliban in Afghanistan. It appears that Karzai has a political plan for himself for the next year, and perhaps beyond, which is seemingly not matching with the policymakers in Islamabad. His latest volleys aimed at Islamabad over issues of the Durand Line and Taliban could be interpreted in this complex context. Incidentally Afghans are also supposed to elect a new President in 2014.
Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of Pakistani armed forces, presumably has a daunting task ahead. Other than regional geopolitical intricacies, he also needs to concentrate on charting a future course for the US-Pakistan interaction. US has not disclosed its intentions for post-2014 Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, on the other hand, is aiming for a tough bargain with Washington. In this situation, Gen Kayani needs an experienced personality for Islamabad who has a keen understanding of operations in the international diplomatic trenches, and simultaneously who is also adept in navigating the local military & political dimensions.
As Pakistanis go to the polls, a few points of immediate relevance would help: (i) No one political system of governance is natural or ideal. (ii) Political systems are nurtured and shaped to suit local conditions & requirements to achieve and safeguard national interests. (iii) The leading Pakistani political parties, except Imran Khan’s Justice Party, are clan based with stiff hereditary control. (iv) Voters, even with literacy, are susceptible to tribal, feudal, clannish and sectarian influences and considerations. (v) Leading political parties, irrespective of their program or manifesto, look for electable candidates in constituencies, and tend to overlook financial corruption, tax evasion and loan default. (vi) There is not a single political leader of national stature in today’s Pakistan.
In this matrix, it is imperative to understand Gen Kayani’s internal constraints. At this critical juncture, there could be grave risks in entrusting total authority to those who have already been tested and who have questionable democratic credentials. The Pakistani military is combating internal militants, and a consensus is slowly emerging that Imran Khan, the cricket legend, could do the tricky negotiations part with the militants for their peaceful reintegration into their own regions. The cricketer turned politician has stirred the imagination of many, especially the sizable youth segment that is to vote for the first time.
Imran Khan’s injuries that he has sustained from a fall during a rally are expected to generate additional sympathy vote for him. To quote a local journalist from the Guardian’s report about the electoral salience of the incident, “This really resonates because people like the image of a fighter, of a warrior,” and “He took this terrible fall and he’s recovering quickly – that is a powerful image.”
For Pakistan’s internal front, Imran is a reasonable administrative choice. But, Obama administration has recently named a new US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. James F. Dobbins has a tough assignment ahead in Kabul and in Islamabad. Yet, who will be the Pakistani special representative to confront a fraught relationship between Washington and Islamabad, as well as an uncertain American military presence in Afghanistan?
The need for an experienced Pakistani personality for Islamabad that has a keen understanding of operations in the international diplomatic trenches, as well as an ability to navigate the local military & political dimensions could lead Gen Kayani towards the splendid military farm at the outskirts of Rawalpindi where his ex-boss General Pervez Musharraf is presently incarcerated. The May 2013 elections in Pakistan are a multiple-cast political thriller.
Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for all his latest analysis on international questions.