Survival strategies

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

Anxious about his survival in office, Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali tries everything to keep the king-makers happy.

in Islamabad

THERE was excitement in the air at the National Library auditorium in Islamabad on December 24 as Iranian President Syed Mohammad Khatami and Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali arrived for a joint press conference to mark Khatami's three-day visit. And it was no ordinary visit by any standard.

The Iranian President was paying a visit after a gap of 10 years and that too at a juncture when the strain in Teheran-Islamabad ties on account of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had become a thing of the past. Khatami was the first head of state to travel to Pakistan after the so-called transfer of power from a military to a civilian set-up following the regulated general elections of October 2002.

But it took Jamali less than 15 minutes to pour cold water on the expectations. He was all honey as long as he stuck to the text of his introductory speech, but the moment a question was shot at him, he revealed his `true colours' or rather, his serious limitations. It was an innocuous question from an Iranian journalist accompanying Khatami: "Mr. Prime Minister, Pakistan has never been a full-time friend of Iran. In the changed circumstances, would Pakistan be different?'' "Well, for me Pakistan comes first and every thing else next,'' Jamali said as a shocked Khatami looked on.

Perhaps Jamali was not exactly zapped by the question. It was simply that he was not taking any chances. `Pakistan first' has been the pet phrase of President and Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Pervez Musharraf throughout his reign of three years and two months. Musharraf has been criticised widely for using the phrase in order to justify all his indefensible deeds, but he has refused to give it up.

It appears that Jamali borrowed the slogan essentially to demonstrate his loyalty to Musharraf and the military top brass, who installed him as Prime Minister. He probably sees it as the safest bet for survival. Jamali has no constituency of his own and is conscious of the fact that he is at the mercy of Musharraf and the Army.

And it certainly was not a coincidence that `Pakistan first' was the main theme of Jamali's speech to the National Assembly on December 30, minutes after he won the vote of confidence. To say the speech was lacklustre is an understatement, but to expect miracles, even in terms of speeches, from Jamali is asking for too much.

Take his election as Prime Minister on November 23 and the subsequent vote of confidence. Both were made possible thanks to Musharraf's decision to keep certain provisions of the Constitution under suspension. Musharraf had partially revived the Constitution the day he took fresh oath as President on November 22.

Some of the provisions such as the anti-defection clauses were kept in abeyance without any explanation obviously to enable Jamali and the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) to engineer defections and cobble up a majority in the National Assembly. And the `King's party' precisely did that. Rebels in the Pakistan People's Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) floated a new front called the PPPP Patriots (PPPPP). It was this group of 10 `Patriots' who helped Jamali get elected as Prime Minister by a margin of just one vote. Jamali amply rewarded the `Patriots' - six of them were inducted into the government and given key portfolios such as Interior and Defence.

The defection game was not confined to the PPP alone. Musharraf also helped Jamali secure the support of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), which has 17 members in the National Assembly.

But the managers of the `King's party' were not happy with the single-member majority and wanted to entice more `turncoats' as an insurance against future blackmail from smaller groups and individual members. Here again, help came from Musharraf, who kept the anti-defection clauses in abeyance.

Under the Pakistan Constitution, although the National Assembly elects the Prime Minister, he/she is required to obtain a confidence vote from the Assembly within 60 days of the election. Jamali and his managers decided to get over with the business three weeks ahead of schedule in view of the fragile nature of the coalition that the Prime Minister presided over.

Two developments after the November 23 election brought to the fore the dangers ahead. The first related to the decision of the MQM, in less than a week after it supported Jamali's election, to sit in the `Opposition benches' in the National Assembly as well as in the Sindh Assembly in view of the failure of Musharraf and Jamali to deliver on their promises. What were the promises?

The MQM wanted its rival group, the Mohajir Quami Movement (Haquiqi), to be ousted from what are known as the `no-go areas' in the port city of Karachi. The MQM, run by Altaf Hussain from the suburbs of London, is considered to be an outfit floated by the then military ruler, Zia-ul-Haq, to counter Benazir Bhutto's PPP. As MQM cadre allegedly ran amuck and made Karachi a dangerous city, the military establishment reportedly created the Haquiqi group to counter it.

The group carried on its activities merrily in areas carved out by the establishment since 1993 and they remained `no-go areas' for the MQM. The October elections changed it all, with MQM emerging as the `deciding factor' both at the Centre and in the Sindh province. Musharraf and Jamali found it easier to deal with the MQM than the mainstream and religious parties that emerged for the first time in the history of the country as a political force to reckon with.

A deal with the PPP and Nawaz Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League, and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six religious parties, was out of the question as they were hell-bent on raising fundamental questions - questions that posed a threat to the very survival of Musharraf as President. For instance, they wanted Musharraf to hang up his uniform and come through the route of Parliament for ratification of his `election' as President. They have raised too many inconvenient questions about the validity of the amendments to the Constitution made by Musharraf and incorporated in the Legal Framework Order (LFO). They want the provision relating to the institutionalisation of the role of the military in governance to be rescinded. What meeting point could be there between a party propped by the military and the other parties that do not accept any role for the military in the running of state affairs? So, despite its best efforts, the King's party could not succeed in winning the support of the MMA or the PPP. Hence it settled for an understanding with the MQM. But indeed it has to pay a heavy price for the deal.

On the eve of Jamali's election, the MQM succeeded in getting the `no-go areas' liberated from the control of its rival faction. Musharraf himself issued the order for the eviction. The MQM pulled off an even bigger coup on the eve of the confidence vote by getting its nominee, Dr. Ishratul Ibad, anointed as the Governor of Sindh. Plus it is the largest coalition partner of the rag-tag government headed by the King's party in the province. The coalition deprived the PPP of a chance to form a government of its own despite being the single largest party in the State Assembly.

Dr. Ibad was in exile in London since 1993 and reportedly faced several charges. He landed in Islamabad recently and met, among others, Musharraf and Jamali. Within days he became the arbitrator of the Constitution.

No wonder there were hardly any cheers for Jamali's victory in the trust vote, by an improved margin of 16 votes. Jamali polled 188 votes in the 342-member house as opposed to the 172 he had managed on November 23 when he defeated MMA candidate Maulana Fazlur Rehman in the election to the Prime Minister's office.

The additional 16 votes were the result of more defections from the PPP and the defection of some members from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), who had earlier declared their allegiance to the MMA. To shouts of `shame' from Opposition benches, Jamali's answer was that even Britain, which had the mother of all parliaments, permitted conscience vote.

But the Jamali government would continue to be at the mercy of the constituents of the coalition. It will be reduced to a minority if the MQM decides to withdraw support. The PPP rebel group, whose ranks in the Assembly have now swelled to 17, are equally capable of bringing down the government.

The only consolation for the Prime Minister is that he has nothing to fear till the end of June as a no-confidence motion against his government cannot be moved in the National Assembly for another six months.

Barring the decision to reduce the power tariff by 12 paise a unit, the Jamali government has hardly taken any decision affecting any sphere of life. There is little doubt that the challenges for Pakistan in 2003 would be stupendous. The growing impatience of the United States with its Afghan operations and its desire to extend them to Pakistan amidst growing anti-American sentiment in the country; the simmering tensions with India; and the desperate wait for relief measures from the World Bank-International Monetary Fund top the list. The moot question is whether Jamali would dare to break out of the smoke-screen of `Pakistan first'.

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