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Monday, July 2, 2007

Timing is the key

Timing is the key
By Zaffar Abbas
The endgame, and the finality it implies, hasn’t started. But the time is fast approaching when President General Pervez Musharraf must commit himself to making some crucial decisions.Some of these relate to the timing of the polls, his own re-election as president (with or without the uniform), the composition of a credible caretaker government and, of course, a more ‘representative’ political scenario post-2007.In between all this, the president has to give time to the ongoing judicial crisis, whose outcome remains as unpredictable as ever, and a post-election arrangement in which ostensibly liberal and moderate forces come together with minimal fuss.Also there is the never-ending task of convincing the West of the sincerity and efficacy of Pakistan’s security operation against Islamic militants.Then, a couple of months down the line, he has to make yet another crucial decision: the selection of the new vice chief of army staff, or VCOAS, who may eventually replace him as the army chief, if and when the military-president chooses to doff his uniform.Going by what can be gleaned from a series of interviews with those directly or indirectly involved in the process, it can be safely said that each of these decisions is linked to, or is influenced by, each other.What is at stake here is not only the general elections but the general’s own political future. More than anyone else, the president knows full well that just one error of judgment could be disastrous for him and some of his key policies of the last few years.Time is of the essence in this tricky game, and most pundits and constitutional experts see July 15 as the cut-off date when it will become clear if the president wants early polls or is considering other options.The president doesn’t have to look outside his circle of aides and PML-Q bigwigs to discover that election-related issues elicit diametrically opposed views. Different lobbies within the establishment have been advocating all manner of options, from early elections to polls in phases, to even holding elections a year later, by December 2008.Early this week, General Musharraf was to retreat for a break in the Murree Hills, mainly to ponder on the variety of suggestions received from different sections of the establishment and the PML-Q. That trip was put off at the last minute, indicating that he still feels more consultation is needed before a final decision.The Chaudhrys of Gujrat, undoubtedly the most powerful group within the ruling elite, have already laid down their options before the president. Their insistence is on elections held in phases, with the National Assembly elected earlier than scheduled — to allow the president to get himself elected a second time — followed by elections for the four provincial assemblies.So convinced of this strategy is the Punjab Chief Minister, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, that he even made his views on the matter public in a media interview.Highly informed sources say that the president was, until last week, seriously considering the early elections option, though it is not clear if he was convinced of the idea of holding polls in phases. These sources say that another strong voice within the establishment, one that favours General Musharraf’s election from the present assemblies, has prevailed in the last few days, indicating that elections may now take place in December or thereabouts.There are cabinet ministers quite close to the president who believe the early polls option is now history. But keeping in mind the prevailing confusion in the president’s camp, and the judicial crisis showing no sign of abating, nothing can be said with absolute certainty.The big question is, what is so important about July 15?Experts in constitutional law and election rules say the cut-off point for General Musharraf for getting himself re-elected is the middle of October, with the electoral process starting around September 15. So if early elections are the way forward, then considering the time required for the pre-poll process, the date for the next general elections will have to be announced by July 15.Only then can the new assemblies be in place in time for General Musharraf to get himself elected before the cut-off date of October 15.Such an option, if not impossible, looks quite improbable. A number of crucial issues remain unresolved. For instance, it is not clear if the hurdles in the way of a possible ‘deal’ with Benazir Bhutto that came up in the aftermath of the judicial crisis, particularly after the Karachi carnage, have been removed as a result of recent trips by Tariq Aziz and others to Dubai.There is the equally big question of the nomination of a caretaker government which is acceptable to most, if not all, of the major players like Ms Bhutto’s PPP and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI. Then there is also a new controversy over the voters list. The president is also said to be soliciting the views of those PML-Q members who say the party has become demoralised in the wake of the judicial crisis, and may need some more time to prepare itself for general elections.However, if July 15 passes without any major announcement, the possibility of an early election will recede. This in effect would mean that General Musharraf has decided to get himself elected from the present assemblies.Smooth sailing in this regard will depend largely on the kind of understanding the president’s camp (read: Tariq Aziz) reaches with Ms Bhutto. It is quite clear that the People’s Party leader will never agree to a president in uniform. At the same time, if a deal does go through, PPP MPs will not resign their seats when the military ruler seeks a vote from the existing assemblies.The word doing the rounds in Islamabad is that Maulana Fazlur Rehman may follow in Ms Bhutto’s footsteps, perhaps on the pretext that his supporters will resign only if the PPP is similarly inclined. They may abstain, and others like Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and the Jamaat-i-Islami members could resign.General Musharraf, though, will be able to get himself elected for another five-year term. What may then follow is the prompt announcement of general elections and the formation of a caretaker government comprising, in all likelihood, some non-controversial former bureaucrats.This is an uphill task. But if it is achieved, insiders say the establishment would allow a relatively credible election, leaving only a few groups like the PML-N and the Jamaat-i-Islami questioning the polls’ transparency.The formation of a future government will, of course, depend on the outcome of the elections. But with the West (read: the US) now keenly pursuing the case for a broad-based coalition government of liberal bent, the PPP may have a key role in government formation, along with the PML-Q, ANP, MQM and a few other groups.The third option, being advocated by a host of ministers and MPs, is to put off elections for another year with General Musharraf getting a mandate of another five years from the existing assemblies to try and settle all pending matters, including the judicial crisis, and then going for a more acceptable broad-based coalition. However, this is being described as a last-ditch option.The one person who doesn’t really fit into this scheme of things is Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. If there is a caretaker set-up, he may be reduced to one of dozens of PML-Q leaders, and perhaps the only one without a genuine constituency. And if there is a deal for a broad-based coalition, being part of such a set-up may not be in keeping with his assessment of his own self-worth. But then Mr Aziz’s PR capabilities remain matchless, and he can always spring a surprise.Perhaps all these issues will be on his mind when Gen Musharraf addresses the nation later this week. Some of his well-wishers believe what is required from the President is a ‘state of the nation’ address, in which he recaps his achievements and admits having committed a few mistakes, and then leave it to the people to decide by announcing the next general elections. It’s a risky business, and the same people admit the president is not convinced that time for such a dramatic announcement has arrived. So, it looks highly unlikely that he will touch on the election issue so early in the day.

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