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The J-Curve Effect in Pakistani Politics

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What's going to happen in Pakistan? This is the question most often asked these days, as news of rising public discontent and violence in that benighted land fills headlines half way across the globe. Only the boldest analyst will not pay heed to the warning once issued by baseball legend Casey Stengel: "Never make predictions, especially about the future." The picture of Pakistan today is bleak. To borrow an economic analogy (from devaluations and their delayed positive effects on balances of payments), the J-Curve Effect will be evident in Pakistan: the political situation will likely get much worse before it gets better.

Even while he termed the impending situation as "grim," President Pervez Musharraf felt emboldened enough by his own declaration of the end of a 42-day State of Emergency on 15 December 2007 to declare on state television that: "The democratic process has been put back again on the rails"; a debatable proposition, with the judiciary and private broadcast media still under restraints. The only certainty is that it will be a rough ride.

The election season for the National Assembly was launched on December 17, with the Election Commission posting the lists of candidates who were approved to run in the elections scheduled for January 8, 2008. But former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother the president of his powerful Pakistan Muslim League (N Group), Shahbaz Sharif, were not allowed to run. The alliance of Islamic parties known as the MMA, Muttahida Majlis-Amal or United Action Council, once a partner of President Musharraf's military regime, has chosen to boycott the elections, as have a number of smaller parties. A leading legal figure, Aitzaz Ahsan, who helped overturn Musharraf's removal of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court last spring, is still under detention and has gone against his party's leader Benazir Bhutto's wishes and withdrawn his election papers.

The ostensibly neutral caretaker government, peopled by loyalists from the Pakistan Muslim League that backed President Musharraf, has allowed the pro-government party to post banners on public property and for its former ministers to continue to use official transport and police as they campaign for re-election. A compliant judiciary has nominated officials to supervise the elections in the more than 65,000 polling stations, while pointedly ignoring protests from other parties against pre-election bias and rigging. Such protests are to be expected in the best of circumstances. But coming as they do after a State of Emergency that has allowed President Musharraf to unilaterally amend the constitution to protect himself against any challenge, such protests are to be expected. In sum, this will be a hastily arranged and flawed exercise in suffrage. And the results may not be pretty.

Already, Pakistan is abuzz of talk of a fixed poll, in which according to officials the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of Musharraf may gain as many as 115 seats in the National Assembly of 342. The fear is that official agencies will collude to make these predictions come true. Bhutto, who has talked of working with Musharraf under certain conditions, is supposed to win some 90 seats, while the president's allies in the largely-urban Muttahida Qaumi Movement (United National Movement) are expected to garner 20 seats. Sharif's party is not expected to get more than 40 seats. Musharraf's PML will have to lean on support from the MQM and smaller Islamic and regional parties to form a government. Whatever the exact outcome, the end result could be a hung parliament that would allow Musharraf to run things by engineering a coalition and dividing the opposition. In other words, Pakistan faces uncertainty and confusion and the road to democracy will be bumpy at best.

A major obstacle to any new government's ability to function will be the presence of a powerful pro-Musharraf PML group in the Senate, the upper house of 100, half of whose members will be up for election in 2009. Today the PML has some 37 senators. The MQM has 5. Bhutto has only 8 while Sharif has even less: 3. Even if Sharif and Bhutto manage to get a strong enough position in the National Assembly polls to form a government, they are guaranteed not to be able to function effectively or to pass laws to fulfill their election manifestos against the wishes of the currently stacked Senate. In the past, Bhutto has seen this configuration work against her. Ironically, her current fellow traveler in the opposition ranks, Sharif, was then responsible for hobbling her government.

For the short term, the only winner might be Musharraf, who openly talked with me last year of taking a parliamentary Pakistan ideally to a French system, with a powerful president controlling the prime minister and government. But the key to his survival of post-election protests will lie in his ability to blunt the public outrage that is bound to emerge after January 8. If the Islamic MMA takes to the streets and is joined by one or more of the other major parties, the PML (N) of Sharif or the Pakistan People's Party of Bhutto, the elections may not provide Musharraf the respite he needs to consolidate his position. Meanwhile, the Islamist insurgents in the border badlands of FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas near Afghanistan) and their domestic Taliban supporters will no doubt unleash fresh attacks on the Pakistan army.

Against this scenario, Pakistan's New Year may usher in greater civil unrest, as Musharraf deals with multiple threats from the spreading wars within Pakistan. Already his personal popularity has plummeted to a low of 26 percent, according to the latest International Republican Institute poll. And his dropping approval rate has translated to a lowering of the popularity of his former power base, the Pakistan army. Some 41 per cent of those polled stated that his performance affected their view of the army. Today, the army is favorably viewed by only 55 per cent of the people polled, compared to its past high of 80 per cent. If these trends continue, the generals whom he once hectored into submission at General Headquarters in Rawalpindi may think again about the negative effects of such polls on the army itself.

As a civilian president, Musharraf will need to learn quickly two lessons: first, that the political system does not always respond to commands, as does the army, and second that military might alone is not the solution to Pakistan's political problems, especially the rising Islamist threat and insurgency. Sharing power may be the only way to ensure that the democratization trend continues, even as Pakistan first hurtles to the bottom of the J-curve of unrest and confusion from the upcoming tainted elections before heading back up to the sweet air of democracy over time. The key question is: with whom will Musharraf make his deal to stay in power? The main stream moderates or the Islamists yet again?

Shuja Nawaz, is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its army, and the wars within (forthcoming) from Oxford University Press. He regularly appears as a commentator on television, radio, and at think tanks.