Political realignment

political realignmentThe season of political realignment is in full swing in Pakistan. The most dramatic expression of this is the newfound bonhomie between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Only a few months ago the two were exchanging bitter invective, which even by the standards of Pakistani politics, reached excessive limits. But in a political culture where expediency trumps principle, their patch up came as little surprise.

With Senate elections in March 2012 being seen by the government and opposition alike as a turning point for their political fortunes, quick-fix deals are being pursued to buttress their positions. The MQM’s decision to part ways with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) offered opposition leader Nawaz Sharif an opportunity to break out of his political isolation. He was quick to seize on this. Meetings between the two parties yielded agreement to work together as “an effective opposition”.

Leaders of both parties also began to raise the prospect of a grand opposition alliance as efforts were launched to reach out to other estranged allies of the ruling party. But the rhetoric about this possibility outpaces the reality.
For now the chances of an opposition coalition remain uncertain. The PPP has already fortified itself and its parliamentary majority by forging an alliance with its former nemesis, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid. This ensured the smooth passage of the budget and provided the People’s Party the fallback majority it needed as it confronted the MQM’s threat to quit the coalition.

The calculation by PPP leaders to reinforce their flanks went much beyond the budget. It is the looming Senate election that is increasingly concentrating the minds of political leaders and shaping their alliance strategies. The accord with PML-Q put the PPP ahead of this game – with the alliance designed to limit Nawaz Sharif’s electoral fortunes in the Punjab. This is what President Asif Ali Zardari is aiming for. A key question is whether the MQM’s abandonment of the ruling coalition will have a snowball effect and bring about game changing realignments?

Much depends on whether PML-N is able to capitalise on this development by showing shrewdness and flexibility that has so far been in short supply. Sharif will need to overcome at least three widespread perceptions about him to secure this goal. One, the impression that he is unable to work with others fed by his go-it-alone past record. Two, his Punjab-only base of support reinforced by what his detractors depict as his Punjab-centric politics. And three, he has to change the perception that he is locked in the past, with his prime motive being to avenge past ‘wrongs’ done to him rather than craft a vision to deal with the future. Sharif can surmount this by showing willingness to embrace all the League factions. But there is as yet little indication of this.

Reliance on PML-Q exposes the PPP to new vulnerabilities as its new ally lacks internal consensus on the arrangement. But if the alliance can be kept intact it will bring the PPP within reach of attaining an absolute majority in the upper house  — something that has eluded governments in the past. By the same token PML-N’s strategy would be to deny the PPP a Senate majority. As things stand the only way to do this is to push for early elections. In a recent interview Sharif sought to play down the impression that he was seeking to mount pressure for fresh elections. But this is precisely what he must do if his party is not to be left at a disadvantage in the national polls.

The lack of sure footedness on the part of Sharif contrasts sharply with the confidence exuded by top PPP leaders who seem more assured of their strategy to achieve their goals in March and beyond. This confidence also comes from the party’s belief that its mostly rural vote bank has benefited from their period in power. According to this reasoning, at a time of economic distress for other social groups, rural incomes have risen – thanks to higher world commodity prices and government decisions especially   higher official support prices for major crops. The economic downturn and spiralling food inflation has hit the living standards of the urban population who are not traditionally the PPP’s electoral mainstay. PPP leaders believe the party can ride to electoral success on the back of these economic trends.

The political landscape will undoubtedly change between now and election time. What seems certain is that coming months offer the prospect of political energies being consumed by political maneuvering and even less attention focused on addressing the country’s mounting challenges. Politicking will take precedence over policy, expedient bargains over consensus building and political stagecraft over statecraft. This risks opening an even greater void in governance. Urgent government decisions — on the economy, fiscal and energy crises and security issues  —  will continue to be postponed.

Pakistan, which confronts a confluence of unresolved challenges, can ill afford a prolonged period of policy paralysis. The growing disconnect between politics and policy will compound problems further, even heighten the risk of some of them exploding in unexpected ways to endanger social and economic stability. – khaleejtimes