By Shuja Nawaz
As Pakistan lurches into another paroxysm of power politics with the threatened impeachment and expected resignation of President Pervez Musharraf, the post-Musharraf picture is not as clear or rosy as the authors of this move may want it to be. The unelected leaders of the coalition government of the Pakistan Peoples' Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (N), Messrs. Asif Ali Zardari and M. Nawaz Sharif respectively may yet find themselves facing a political mess even after Musharraf is gone. There is much that may yet split their on-again, off-again alliance and bring the country to the edge of a new political crisis. In the meantime, the country is sliding into economic chaos and there is no sign that the government has a credible strategy to cope with the impending disaster.
After two weeks of travel and conversations with citizens, civil leaders, military officials, and journalists in Pakistan, a complex picture emerges: a country beset by serious economic woes, a growing insurgency, and a fractured polity. In the shadows sits the powerful Pakistan army, the historical arbiter of Pakistani politics, headed by a publicly inscrutable but privately engaged and engaging new chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
The open-ended impeachment threat by Zardari and Sharif ran counter to the expected 48-hour call for Musharraf to step down or be impeached by a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate. Despite the public posturing that followed, it was not so much the political pressure as the absence of support from the army that spelled Musharraf's doom.
Talking to army officers of all ranks in the field (in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas near Afghanistan and the Swat sector) and at headquarters in Rawalpindi, one thing was clear: they would rather not be drawn into the current political squabble. They want to give the civilians the "time and space" to operate government as best as they can. Their ideal is a constitutional process that would allow Musharraf to depart without fear of retributive action. All other options were seen to carry severe costs for the polity and the teetering economy.
The public in Pakistan has been pummeled by double digit inflation, especially by a more than 30% jump in food prices. For the poorest, food costs account for up to half their earnings and expenditures. Both food and energy shortages have forced families to spend an inordinate amount of their time and effort searching for both. Hyperinflation may be in the cards, with its attendant societal upheaval. Major business houses are fearful of the future and of heavy handed tactics to subjugate them for political purposes. The cancellation of privatization plans crafted by the previous government may have cost the economy some $5 billion of foreign exchange reserves. Those reserves, according to international economists, are hemorrhaging at the rate of $1 billion a month and effectively are exhausted now. They dropped from a high of $16 billion under Musharraf to $9 billion recently. Of these over $5 billion are in foreign currency deposits, meaning they are not available to the government, whose only source of immediate financing is now the printing press that comes under the State Bank. Use of that press adds to inflation. Compounding the woes of the country is a sliding stock market, down from 16,000 to 9,000 points, and a drop in the Rupee exchange rate from Rs. 65 to Rs. 74 to the U.S. dollar.
The power games being played out in Islamabad keep the politicians and the television pundits occupied day and night. Meanwhile torrential rains and floods have inundated or affected nearly one third of the country. Except for the intrepid chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif (Nawaz Sharif's younger brother), no one in the government or even the presidency was seen visiting the affected people. In the absence of civilian disaster management, as usual, the army has been helping with relief efforts.
If the impeachment drama launched last week ends quickly with Musharraf's resignation, the fledgling government may yet be able to turn its mind to the economy and the flood ravaged countryside. If it becomes drawn out, the wrath of the people may turn against the new rulers. And the patience of the army may be tested. No one wants the army to upend the political system again. But time may be running out for the coalition government to restore stability to Pakistan's shaky polity in a post-Musharraf Pakistan. If it fails, there is talk in Pakistan of another cycle of military intervention in the offing, this time on the Bangladesh model: of a longer duration, and using a civilian facade to restore the country's economic health. Yet again democracy will be the loser.
Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press, 2008). He has just returned from a two-week visit to Pakistan and can be reached at www.shujanawaz.com.
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