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Pakistan Perspectives : Political Situation

Political Situation

Finally, Pakistan experienced for the first time that a democratic government has handed over the power to the other democratically elected civilian government. The interim government has handed over power to PML-N government and its leader Nawaz Sharif has become prime minister for the third time. He was ousted from the power twice by the establishment before completing his constitutional tenure of five years. Nawaz Sharif has long history of love and hate with the establishment. PML-N has formed the government in the center after 14 years. PML-N has also formed government in Punjab province. PPP has formed government in Sindh province. PTI has formed coalition with the help of religious hardline JI and Pashtun nationalist QWP. Baluch nationalist National Party (NP) is leading a coalition government including PML-N and Pashtun nationalist PKMAP in Baluchistan.

The center right PML-N is the traditional party of the ruling elite and especially of Punjabi ruling elite. Its main leadership comes from the capitalist class of the main urban centers. One section of leadership comes from the traditional upper middle class. Traditionally, PML-N was use to enjoy the support of the super rich, upper and middle class and sections of lower middle class. PPP was use to enjoy the support of the lower middle class, urban poor and working class. But this has changed now; PTI has taken away big sections of super rich, upper and middle class from PML-N. On the other hand PML-N has taken away big sections of lower middle class, urban poor and working class from PPP. The main support for PML-N still comes from the traders and conservative lower middle class. Since 1993, PML-N has been able to strengthen its position in the working class and poor areas. The slums in the major cities once considered the strong hold of the PPP now become stronghold of the PML-N.

PML-N was the pioneer of the neo-liberal economic policies in the country in 1990. PML-N government from 1990 to 1992 launched the vicious anti working class policies of privatization, retrenchments, restructuring of the public sector, mass sackings and anti trade union laws. Same policies were adopted during the second term from 1997 to 1999. It was the government of PML-N which declared workers strike as a act of terrorism under the anti terrorism act. PML-N government viciously attacks the workers rights and tried to smash the trade union movement. This new government will carry out an austerity program targeting the public sector. The new government is preparing a plan to reduce the deficit of the remaining public sector companies and corporations. These measures might provoke a new struggle of the working class to defend its rights. PML-N government will viciously implement the neo liberal economic policies. It has already approached IMF for a loan of 6.5 billion dollars on strict conditions. These policies will mean more poverty, unemployment, price hike, lack of services and further fall in the living standards of the working masses.

It will be too early to predict whether PML-N government will be able to complete its constitutional term of five years or not. Some political commentators and analyst has already started to predict that PML-N government will not be able to complete its term and will be kicked out by the establishment after the withdrawal of the US forces in 2014. Many conspiracy theories are roaming around. External factors can effect the government but the internal situation will play the decisive role for the future of this government. This government came to power when Pakistan is going through the worst crises of its history. The energy crisis, worsening law and order situation, terrorism, stagnant economy, very high inflation, rising poverty, high unemployment and falling living standards are the main issues that this government will have to handle. Not only the survival of the government but also the political survival of the PML-N depends on how the government will handle these issues.

The three very important changes will take place on the top this year. First president Zardari will go in September after completing his term of five years. The PML-N will be able to elect its own president to further strengthen its power. It is most likely that a PML-N leader will become the next president. Than present Army chief General Ishfaq Pervaiz Kiani will retire in November after serving as army chief for six years. He is the only army chief who served for six years without imposing the Martial Law. The government will appoint the new army chief and this decision can play important role in the future events. Because Nawaz Sharif made two appointments in the past as prime minister and on both occasions he was kicked out by his own hand picked army chief. Military is still the most powerful state institution in the country and played key role in the decision making. Military has big interests both in politics and economy and will try everything to protect these interests.

In December, the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry will complete his tenure and new chief Justice will take over. The present Chief Justice is the symbol of independent judiciary which stands up to the military establishment and become very respected and popular in the masses. The judiciary has gained lot of strength since its restoration. It has become a stake holder along with the military in the decision making and power sharing. If the military dominates the policy and decision making than superior courts are interfering in almost all the aspects of the daily decision making of the government. Supreme Court is directly dealing with corruption cases and also overseeing the appointments in the key positions. The government will be under constant pressure from the both sides.

The superior courts have taken lot of space for the civilian bureaucracy and even military establishment is also feeling the pressure. There is constant tension between the different state institutions but this is not getting out of control at the moment. All sides are trying to make the necessary adjustments to keep the situation under control. But the possibility of further escalation is there which can destablise the whole situation.  These changes at the top will play key role in the shaping of the future events.

There are three issues which might develop differences between the PML-N government and the powerful military establishment. First, the Afghan policy which is under direct military control since 1978. Pakistani military establishment wanted a bigger say and role in the post –American Afghan administration. There is tension between Karzai administration and Pakistani military. Nawaz government is keen to assert its authority on the foreign policy which is considered sole domain of the military. Same situation might emerge around the issue of Pak-India relations. Nawaz government is keen to normalize relations with India and wanted to reopen the negotiations to settle issues with India. The government also wanted to start direct trade with India which is bitterly opposed by the religious parties and militant groups. The military establishment might not be very comfortable if the planned talks and back door diplomacy went ahead without addressing the reservations of the military. The third and the most important issue is that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wanted to tame the power of the military and wanted to bring it under the control of the civilian government. Nawaz Sharif also wanted to reorganize and restructure the intelligence apparatus in the country. This issue might strain the relations between military and the PML-N government.

The smooth sailing might not be possible for the PML-N government as one crisis will follow the other.  The turbulent time is ahead for the PML-N government.

General Elections

Against all predictions of split mandate and a hung parliament, the electorate has given a clear verdict in the May 11 general elections. There was general consensus among the political commentators and pundits that no party will be able to get the simple majority to form the government.

As expected, Centre right PML-N led by ex- Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif emerged as victorious in the May 11 general elections. But the margin of victory was even surprising for the PML-N leadership. No body was expecting the clear majority of PML-N.   PML-N got the simple majority to form the next government. PML-N has 186 seats in the house of 342. It will enjoy the support of more than 200 members in the house because its allies have also won more than two dozen seats. PML-N also got landslide in provincial assembly of Punjab province.  PPP got 41 seats in parliament and also won majority in provincial assembly of Sindh province. PTI got 31 seats in the parliament and also emerged as the single largest party in the KPK provincial assembly. The ANP in KPK and PML-Q were also routed in the elections. Both were the main allies of the PPP government. ANP was the largest party in the KPK assembly in last elections and it formed the provincial government with the help of PPP. Now it reduced to just one seat in the parliament and 4 in the provincial assembly. All the main leaders of this Pashtun nationalist party lost the elections. PML-Q was created by ex military dictator General Musharaf to serve his own political interests before the elections in 2002. Military and civil establishment supported this party against PML-N and PPP. This party won 94 seats in 2002 and 54 in 2008. This party got just 02 seats in 2013 elections. This party got 8.4 million votes in 2008 but reduced to 1.5 votes in 2013. The major chunk of its lost votes went to PML-N and some went to PTI.

The voters turn out was 55% which was the second highest in the history of the country. The highest turn out was in 1970 elections which was 59%. The turn out in Punjab province was around 60%.The average turn out in seven last general elections from 1985 to 2008 was 40%. This high turn out was more significant in back drop of Taliban and other militant groups repeated threats to attack the polling stations. One of the main reasons for this high turn out was that the people living in the posh areas cast their votes for the very first time. The people waited to cast their votes for hours in long queues.   The youth also came out in big numbers to cast their votes. It was generally believed that the high turn out will benefit PTI but instead it helped PML-N to get the unexpected simple majority.    More than 46 million voters exercise their right of vote out of 86 million total registered voters. PML-N got 14.87 million votes (32%), PPP got 6.9million (15%) and PTI got 7.6 million votes (17%). All the religious parties got 2 million combine votes (4%). PML-N got 6.9 million votes in last general elections held in 2008 which means it increases around 8 million votes in these elections. PPP got around 12million votes in 2008 but this time it got 6.8 million that means it lost nearly half of its votes. Most of the votes lost by PPP went to PTI which successfully increased its votes many folds. Only two religious parties were able to make it to the parliament out of more than two dozen which contested the elections, JI and JUI-F got 4 and 10seats respectively. Both the religious parties failed to get any seat from the main urban centers. The left parties that contested the elections got nearly 30,000 (thirty thousand) votes in total. This is a very poor show despite the high turn out.

This election was the first since 1985 in which the military establishment and intelligence agencies did not interfere openly and blatantly. It was the norm in Pakistan that even candidates were used to selected by the intelligence agencies. It was always known even before the elections that who is going to win the elections. But this election was different as experts, analysts and commentators were finding it hard to predict the winner of the elections. The independent human rights organisations and international and local election observers find no prove of this involvement. These elections were better organised compare to the previous elections. But from the working class point view these elections were the same as there was no mass party of the working class in the run. The conditions created by the rotten capitalist and feudal system forced the working masses to just sit at their homes or go out and cast their vote in favour of the one capitalist or the other and one feudal or the other. There is no real choice for the working masses. The elections provide them choice to choose their oppressors. The capitalist democracy has not touched yet the millions of peasants and poor in the rural areas. Millions of women were also left out from the democratic process because it is against the men made customs and traditions. Very little has changed for the working masses in this country.

PPP routed

Leaderless and rudderless sums up the current state of the PPP, as it struggle to stay in the political arena. There are no big election rallies nor is there any central leader to galvanise the electorate. For the first time, the party has gone into the election campaign without a Bhutto to lead it. Therefore there is no Bhutto charisma to revive the party’s fast-diminishing populist credibility.

Not only was Benazir Bhutto there to start the party’s 2008 election campaign, her assassination drew sympathy votes bringing back the party to power after a hiatus of 11 years. But now a critical peg to hang on to and a fight-back to regain the ground lost during its not so enviable five-year term in office appear to be missing. The party’s TV campaign advertisements reflect its desperation to clutch on to the past and resort to the politics of martyrdom.

It is largely a negative campaign targeting the past record of the PML-N. There is nothing about its own performance or what the party will offer to the electorate in the future. This illustrates the defeatist mindset of a party that is unable to defend its incompetence and corruption-ridden rule.

Over the past 40 years, the PPP went through many ups and downs, but it has never seen its fortunes plummeting so rapidly. It is a party now trying to live off its past without any hope for the future. One of the greatest assets of the party that kept it alive through the worst of times was its contact with the masses. That seems to have been completely lost due to the party’s new ethos of political wheeling and dealing and buying loyalties. Once a left leaning, radical, populist reformist party which had its strong roots in the working class and poor masses has completely been transformed into a rotten capitalist and feudal party. The party leadership ditched the working class and poor masses capitulated to the ruling elite. It is not the enemies but its own leadership that is responsible for the present state of the party.

The attempt to launch Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to infuse some life into the party’s dead election campaign seems to have failed because of his reported falling out with his father and paternal aunt. In any case it would have been very difficult for an untested young man with little understanding of the realities and complexities of the country’s politics to boost the flagging morale of the party and to win votes.

The PPP has largely become a rural-based party with its support mainly concentrated in feudal-dominated Sindh and south Punjab. The failure of the PPP government to deliver on its promises to its constituents has also eroded the party’s vote bank in its stronghold.

But the real issue is whether a rudderless PPP with a declining mass base is able to emerge united after the electoral setback or whether the situation would lead to the complete unraveling of a party that still claims to espouse liberal credentials. More critical issue is whether it can ever regain its lost mass base. This is only possible if the party reforms itself in a changed political, social and cultural environment. It is certainly an uphill task for a party that depends on its past and does not seem to be looking towards the future.

To the causes first and, no, anti-incumbency is no valid excuse; the argument that the Pakistani voting pattern is historically so is seriously flawed. It could be safely said that the PPP’s undoing came about because there was no electricity all these five years in Punjab; the province successfully deflected it straight into the lap of the federal government which ensured the situation got from bad to worse.

This needs to be understood seriously; every single user of electricity in the province is/was a voter — from the one who wanted to run his single fan and bulb to the urban middle class airconditioner-user to the farmer who needed power to run his tubewell. This, along with the sense that the federal government stole Punjab’s power and rewarded the other three provinces, especially Karachi, annoyed every household, every voter, and every single day.

Two, the party weaved a blatant corruption narrative around itself and was punished by the voters as blatantly. This is exactly why the ANP was ousted from the KPK. The voters disregarded the so-called development-work-in-the-constituency-model (the two prime ministers are said to have revolutionised their own areas) in the face of the mega-corruption message that reached them effectively — from the media, from the judiciary as well as from the rumour mills on a daily basis.

The federal government which, it must be acknowledged, was doing survival politics all along, did not take a tough stand against the allegations or the corrupt leaders in its fold. The victimhood narrative did not sell in an urbanised and changed society being shaped in the most populous province.With this kind of baggage, it would have been tough for any leader, including Bilawal Bhutto, to campaign for the party.

Lahore-based political analyst Suhail Warraich thinks the PPP needs to realise that rapid urbanisation has changed the demographics of Pakistani society and “it needs to extend its agenda to the urban population as well”. Asif Ali Zardari is not the answer to the party’s problems; Warraich thinks it is time for him to retire. “His politics of maneuvering helped the party a lot during the last five years but he can never win the approval of voters.”

With only 42 seats in a house of 342, the Pakistan Peoples Party’s political fall looks complete. The sustained vote bank it always pinned hopes on has suddenly shrunk to half its size.  In the last parliament it had 128 seats. The party has almost been wiped out from Punjab and wholly so from KPK and Baluchistan province. It has been able to maintain its grip on the Sindh province but with reduced votes. The voters have punished the party because of corruption, bad governance, inefficiency, failure to address the energy crisis and inflation. The party leadership was focused on one point agenda through out its term of five years and that was to complete its term. The party leadership forged alliances with all sort of forces which were against the PPP from the day of its inception. The party leadership turned blind eye to the problems faced by the working masses and middle classes. The PPP government paid no attention to solve the energy crisis which increased to unprecedented levels.

The whole election strategy of PPP was based on two points. The first one was that its allies PML-Q and a religious group called Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) will split the right wing votes in Punjab province and benefit the PPP. This strategy was based on the perception that PPP will retain its vote bank while the PML-N vote bank will split and thus pave the way for the PPP. The second point of this strategy was to promote and strengthen the Imran Khan led PTI in Punjab. This strategy was based on the perception that PTI will disturb the vote bank of PML-N and the split in the right wing vote will benefit the PPP candidates. This strategy failed miserably. PML-Q and SIC failed to retain its vote bank and whither away. Its voters voted in favour of PML-N on the fears that the split in the votes might pave the way for the return of PPP in the power. On the other hand PPP heavily relied upon PTI to split the right wing votes and to damage the PML-N. Many PPP leaders were saying that we will win the elections without campaigning because PPP has solid vote bank and PTI will split the vote bank of PML-N and thus paving the way for our return to power. This strategy not only failed but also backfired and PTI caused maximum damage to PPP vote bank. Many PPP leaders including founding members left the party after spending nearly 40 years in the party. PPP activists and gross root level office bearers also left the party and joined either PTI or PML-N. Whole layers of party workers become inactive as party leadership under Zardari ditched them and replaced with opportunist and corrupt capitalist and feudal elite.

PPP started to loose its support since 1993 and now become empty. Thousands of die hard workers have left the party. PPP is no more seen as a party of the poor and working class by the working class people and poor peasants. PPP leadership is fully consisting on feudal lords and big capitalists. PPP was never a traditional working class party, but a party with leadership of upper class and middle class with a solid support in the masses. This represents a popular phenomenon which developed around Bhutto. Present day PPP is even not a shadow of the old party. It can not be ruled out that in the absence of an alternative, some sections of the working class might once again vote for PPP. But it will be critical and protest vote that can not be compared with the vote in 1970 or even 1988. PPP is finished as a party of masses and working class people. The betrayal of PPP was and still a big blow to the working class politics. There is no mass working class party exist in Pakistan at the moment.

The Emergence of PTI

The Imran Khan led PTI emerged as the second largest political force in the country in May 11 general elections. PTI got more votes than PPP in the elections. PTI got 31 seats in the parliament and also emerged as the single largest party in the KPK provincial assembly. PTI got 7.6 million votes (17%). PTI got most of its votes from urban centers of Punjab, parts of KPK and Karachi. In the big cities like Lahore, Karachi, Multan, Peshawar, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, PTI got maximum votes from posh and middle class areas. The election results have clearly cemented the perception that PTI is the party of the rich and upper middle classes. In the posh and middle class areas of Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Multan and Rawalpindi, PTI got between 70% to 90% votes. It hardly lost elections in any polling stations situated in the posh areas. PTI was able for the very first to moblise the people of these wealthy areas which flocked to the polling stations in big numbers. But PTI failed to attract the lower middle class and working masses. PTI does badly in the lower middle class, working class and poor areas of the urban centers. PML-N got the maximum number of votes from these areas. PTI failed to make impact in the rural areas where nearly 65% population still lives. It does made some inroads into the some rural areas in KPK.

PTI run the impressive election campaign based on the slogans of change and New Pakistan. These slogans attracted the upper middle class and rich youth which is the backbone of the PTI. These slogans failed to impress and attract the wide layers of working class and poor. The whole campaign was to clean the corrupt system and to bring the clean administration. These slogans fell short of the expectations of the working masses and poor farmers and peasants. On the other hand PML-N campaigned around the real issues of masses. PML-N promised jobs, easy bank loans and other measures for the unemployed working class and poor youth. If the PTI got impressive support from the layers of rich and upper middle class educated youth than the PML-N got huge support from the lower middle class, working class and poor youth. These layers were once the hard core supporters of the PPP in the 1970s and 1980s. But now these layers have been won over by PML-N.

Imran khan also attempted to pose as a reincarnation of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. He expected his tsunami to sweep the elections the way the PPP did in 1970 in West Pakistan. However, he failed to understand that the 1970 elections were held on the heels of a revolutionary movement that rattled the state and challenged the system. The May 11 elections were held after the masses had endured five years of excruciating misery with record price hikes, redundancies, unemployment, terrorism, and deprivation under a democratic regime.

Instead of mass consciousness in a condition of revolt and upsurge, there was certain despair and disillusionment in the mass consciousness by the social and economic wounds inflicted by the regime of capitalist democracy. Imran Khan’s programme had no plans to end the class exploitation. Bhutto, on the other hand, came out as the representative of the working classes instead of an erratic and impatient middle class. The PPP’s founding documents of 1967 and the 1970 election manifesto called for a change through class struggle and revolutionary socialism. Most of the winners on the PPP ticket were unknown activists, the so-called ‘unelectables’. The traditional elite politicians were routed in those elections.

But as the elections came closer, the stark realities of the electoral system based on moneyed politics in a stagnant society came to haunt the PTI. Imran Khan began cajoling the traditional politicians from the ruling elite, infamously known as the ‘electables’. Although there was resentment, clashes, and vociferous opposition from the PTI old guard, Imran Khan had no qualms accepting those turncoats. This was because Imran Khan’s ideological concepts were not in contradiction with the capitalist/feudal system that these elite politicians represented. Ironically, all along he had been claiming that his party was an ideological organisation while others had no ideology. Rhetoric apart, the real ideology of the PTI is rightwing reformism. It is neither new nor a feasible recipe to overcome the crippling crises facing society. Khan is a right-wing populist trying to create a queer hybrid of the liberal and obscurantist versions of social and political currents, both entrenched in the capitalist economic system. Imran Khan  is very modern and liberal in its outlook and social life but holds petty boursoie right wing political ideas, the mixture of religion and liberal thoughts.

At most, the PTI’s programme was to carry out reforms within the system without touching its economic and social foundations. In spite of the fact that Khan’s campaign had glamour, slogans of change and lots of euphoria, the fundamental doctrine was to sustain capitalism.

The slogan to end corruption is also deceptive. In fact, corruption is not the cause of the crisis. It is a by-product and an essential and necessary outcome of this system. Eliminating corruption under capitalism is utopian. The PTI also promised to provide justice to the masses but it refused to proclaim free justice to all. The judicial system is too expensive to be afforded by the poor.

On the crucial issues of health and education, the PTI had a similar position. But even more importantly, the PTI refused to declare its class affiliations in a society where the most vital and decisive contradiction is the class conflict. What Khan calls the Pakistani nation has, in fact, two nations: the exploiters and the exploited. The basic interests of the ruling class and the toiling classes are irreconcilable. PTI leadership consists of the members of the ruling elite. Most of its leaders are billionaires having their own private jets. Overwhelming majority of the central leadership is either big feudal lords or their younger family members and big industrialists and businessmen. Most of the leaders remained part of the previous PPP, PML-N and Musharaf governments. The class interests of PTI leadership are very clear and it is the old wine in the new fancy bottle.

There were several splits and conflicts in the PTI ranks even before the elections, while some leading figures have left after the elections. Although the PTI got the second highest votes, it cannot sustain its support base with the present economic and social agenda. The charisma of individuals plays a certain role in the fortunes of parties, especially in underdeveloped societies. But it cannot be relied upon to sustain a formidable political party for long. The times ahead are going to be extremely turbulent even by Pakistani standards. All mainstream parties will face fragmentation. It will be more so in the case of the PTI owing to its petit bourgeois class base and its ideological confusion, which emanates from its programme of reforming the capitalist system. The middle class youth that jumped onto Imran Khan’s bandwagon in an era of ideological confusion will abandon it in similar haste, as the PTI’s programme offers no real strategy for the future. PTI got most of its support from KPK, where people voted for PTI to bring peace and end violence. The future of PTI is depending on the performance of its provincial government in KPK. PTI promised to bring peace, an end to drone attacks and Taliban insurgency. Now it is time to full fill these promises.

The people in KPK had the history not to reelect the ruling party. In last four elections, no ruling party was able to reelect itself. In the last elections, ANP came to power on the promise of bringing peace in the province. ANP gave lot of sacrifices in the fight against Taliban as it lost its senior leaders and hundreds of workers but still the people punish them. The reason was that it failed to bring promised peace.

Religious right failed again

Religious political parties once again failed to make big gains in the general elections. Only two religious parties were able to make it to the parliament. Jamat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulmai Islam- Fazal (JUI-F) got 4 and 10 seats respectively. All these seats were won from KPK and Baluchistan. Both the parties are hardliner and wanted to make Pakistan an ideal Islamic state. JI failed to get any seat from its traditional strong hold Karachi. Both the parties failed to won single seat from any big city. All the religious parties could only manage around 6% votes nationally. The masses once again rejected the sectarian and hardline agenda of the religious right. The working masses and poor once again demonstrated in practice that they do not trust such forces and not ready to test them.

There is a big contradiction in the consciousness of the masses. The masses do not trust the political agenda of the religious parties but at the same time follow them on most of the social and religious issues. They will not vote for them but will participate in the demonstration or protest rally organised on religious issue. Despite having street power, because of this contradiction the religious parties never been able to won the elections.

The right wing political parties are dominating the political scene at the moment. 4 out of 5 largest political parties in Pakistan are right wing parties. PPP is no more a left wing or even a secular party so that means there is not a single left wing party in the main steam at the moment. One finds it difficult to see any big differences even on the social issues between PPP and PML-N. PPP has gone further to the right to appease the right wing voters. It will not be wrong to say that right wing is dominating and even continue to grow.

Religious extremism and intolerance is on the rise. The religious sentiments are running very high. The religious right has used the Anti Islam Blasphemous film issue to provoke the religious sentiments. Religious parties and extremist forces used these issues to spread their extremist ideas and hate campaigns. The PPP led government banned the You Tube web site under pressure from religious groups because You Tube refuses to remove the blasphemous material. This ban is still continue even the government has changed and PML-N promised to lift the ban. But new government is also finding it difficult to lift the ban.    Religious related attacks and blasphemy allegations are alarmingly on rise and discourage any meaningful discussions or intellectual debates on certain social and religious issues.    It has become norm for the religious leaders and groups to use the blasphemy issue to silent any opposition voice.

Taliban and other reactionary religious extremists groups have increased suicide bombings and targeted attacks against security forces and ordinary people since the new governments of PML-N and PTI came to power respectively in Center and KPK province. Two provincial assembly members of PTI have been killed by the Taliban. Both wanted to start peace negotiations with Taliban to bring peace in KPK province and other areas of the country. Since the formation of the PTI provincial government in KPK province, Taliban groups have increased their attacks in the province. The provincial capital Peshawar is the main target of these terrorist attacks. Even Lahore was targeted after the gap of almost two years.    The sectarian killings have also increased in last few years. Armed religious extremist groups linked with Taliban and Al-Qaeda is targeting the Shia’s in the different parts of the country.

The flawed policy

IF the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) can be tamed politically, nothing like it. If death and destruction can come to an end through dialogue, then why not? Talks, said Nawaz Sharif on Monday, are the “best option”. Speaking to a gathering of his party’s newly elected MPs in Lahore, the prime minister made these remarks. The PML-N chief referred to the 40,000 casualties the Taliban have inflicted on the country — and the consequent cost to the economy — and said that dialogue was not a bad option. The question is: will a dialogue with the Taliban work? What is their track record? Have they in the past abided by the agreements worked out with the state of Pakistan and kept their peace?

The victor of the May 11 vote is a worried man. The problems he has to fix range from the energy crisis to a sinking public sector. Foreign exchange reserves have tumbled, industry is stagnating, foreign investment is shy and Pakistani entrepreneurs are investing abroad. On top of this is the need for the new regime to develop a working relationship with the federating units to be ruled by other parties. But all this is not possible without giving peace to the people who have seen, heard and suffered blast after blast since the Taliban began their terror campaign in 2007.

Undeniably, the PML-N has a conservative outlook and was one of the three parties the Taliban had chosen as ‘guarantors’. Nevertheless, now that he has form the government, Mr Sharif knows all too well that all his plans for the economy’s revival — and such fancy projects as a bullet train — will never see the light of day without an end to the insurgency. The PML-N high command should also be mindful of certain incontrovertible realities: the Taliban have used the peace interregnum to shore up their defenses; they continue to host terrorists from all parts of Pakistan and abroad, and they reject the democratic process. If the Taliban want peace, they must renounce violence, accept the sovereignty of the state of Pakistan on every bit of territory and join the political mainstream. The state will give away nothing; it is the Taliban who have to accept the fundamentals of civilised living, like democracy, education and women’s rights. That’s what the talks should aim at.

In fact, the most recent high-value target of the CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions, Waliur Rehman, masterminded many gruesome militant attacks. To portray him as a moderate or a man seriously seeking peace talks is to play a cruel joke on thousands of innocent victims of terrorism.

It was not without reason that Waliur Rehman was on Pakistan’s list of most wanted terrorists; the US had announced a bounty of $5 million on him. His role as the top operational commander of the TTP came to light during the bloody siege of the GHQ in Rawalpindi in October 2009. Intercepted messages showed that the attackers were constantly getting instructions on the wireless from Waliur Rehman.

Putting aside the controversy on the legality of the CIA drone campaign inside Pakistani territory, it is a false argument that the strike killing Waliur Rehman was meant to scuttle peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban. Such debates only help Taliban apologists seeking to promote the militant cause. The demand by Maulana Samiul Haq, the self-appointed arbitrator between the government and the TTP, that Pakistan should apologise for the killing of Waliur Rehman is shocking.

Not surprisingly the TTP has used the killing of its deputy leader as a pretext for withdrawing its so-called peace talk’s offer. From the outset it was never a serious pursuit for peace by the Taliban. But some political parties took the ruse seriously. The PML-N and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf made the support for peace talks part of their election campaigns. In his first speech to his party’s newly elected members of the National Assembly, Nawaz Sharif reiterated his position that negotiations were the only means to deal with militancy. “Why should we not talk to the Taliban?” he asked his party legislators and then himself replied in the affirmative.

While blasting the previous government for not taking the TTP peace talks offer seriously, the new Pakistani leader completely ignored the atrocities the militants have wreaked on Pakistan. No homage was paid to the thousands of Pakistani soldiers who laid down their lives in fighting the militants and securing the tribal regions.

The statement of the new chief minister of the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa declaring that his party “did not have any enmity with the Taliban” was equally pathetic.

The statement came as the TTP had mounted at least six terrorist attacks in as many days. Then, following the deadly suicide bombing of a mosque in Peshawar a few days ago, the KP health minister, Shaukat Ali Yousafzai, saw a foreign hand behind the incident. According to him, “no Muslim could attack a mosque”. This PTI stalwart is of the view that the Taliban are “against attacking places of worship.” Tell that to the thousands who have been killed in mosques over the years.

There was no condemnation of those attacks by the two most powerful parties now in power in the centre and KP. Such an apologetic position and pampering of the terrorists provides greater space to the militants.

By giving the TTP a clean chit the new KP government is setting a very dangerous precedent. A serious concern is that lowering one’s guard and inaction by the provincial government could give the militants the space to regenerate and regain lost ground.

One should learn lessons from the Swat peace deals. Soon after coming to power in the province in 2008, the Awami National Party pursued the same policy of negotiations on the militants’ terms with disastrous consequences.

The militant commanders released after the peace agreement went back to Swat and killed hundreds of people who had cooperated with the administration and political opponents. Another failed peace deal in 2009 led to a military operation. Therefore the argument that negotiations were not given a chance is false.

What is most dangerous is the widening divide between the new political leadership and the military over peace talks with the TTP. Gen Kayani has made it very clear that there could not be any negotiations unless the militants renounce violence and accept the writ of the state.

The attitude of the civilian leadership reinforces the perception that it is only the military’s war against militancy and nothing to do with them. This makes for a very dangerous situation where the country’s internal security is concerned.

There is no clarity among the parties supporting the peace talks about what is negotiable. The list of the TTP’s demands includes enforcement of its version of the Sharia and changing the country’s foreign policy and national security paradigm. It completely rejects democracy and constitutional authority. Can the masses and democratically elected government accept those conditions?

An oft-repeated argument is that if the Americans are engaging with the Taliban in Afghanistan why Pakistan can’t negotiate with its own militants. This is an extremely ridiculous parallel. There is a huge difference in the two situations. There are no foreign parties in Pakistan — the TTP is not fighting foreign troops.

Another apology for militant violence is Pakistan’s so-called involvement in US war in Afghanistan that according to Imran Khan and other political leaders has reinforced the jihadi narrative. It is, perhaps, the most unconvincing argument of all. How is Pakistan involved in the US war, especially when the coalition forces are in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan? Do Imran Khan and others want Pakistan to support the so-called jihad in Afghanistan?

Besides, the TTP are not a monolithic group and numerous TTP and other militant factions are operating in KPK with their separate demands and agendas. Many of them are just criminal gangs engaged in crimes ranging from kidnapping for ransom to bank robberies. How are we going to negotiate with each one of them? Perhaps the government does not have a clear answer to this.

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