Accessibility links

Old Cycle of Political Rivalries Grips Pakistan


Pakistan's current political turmoil is reminiscent of past political rivalries and even involves some of the same players or their families. Such bitter battles in the 1990s invariably ended with covert manipulation by the country's powerful military and culminated in a direct military takeover in 1999. But, the stakes are higher now.

In the 1990s, two figures dominated Pakistani politics: Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Each of them would be prime minister for a few years, while the other worked to undermine the incumbent. In both cases, the president, with military backing, dismissed their governments for corruption and mismanagement. In 1999, a general, Pervez Musharraf, assumed direct rule of the country.

Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 while attempting a political comeback. General Musharraf resigned after an election the following year. And Sharif is engaged in a struggle with the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of his slain rival.

Alex Thier of the International Crisis Group says the political crisis underscores how little Pakistan politics has matured since the 1990s.

"I'm afraid that we are back into that cycle again, where you're dealing with a very weak civilian government after eight-plus years of military rule, you're dealing with a debilitating rivalry, and you're dealing with parties more accustomed to putting their own agendas before the rule of law."

Professor Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says this style of politics, coupled with heightened activity by militant extremists and the economic downturn, puts Pakistan in jeopardy.

"I think that there's a whole set of problems there that collectively have Pakistan on the verge of going under and specifically have the government in great trouble," he said. "I think the economic crisis and the way in which extremists have been acting in the past several months are indicative of a level of sickness in the society that's creating a real problem for anyone to stay on top."

Politics in Pakistan is primarily a family business among the major parties. Bhutto's son Bilawal was named head of the Pakistan Peoples' Party after her death but her husband took effective leadership and became president. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is under control of Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz. Analysts say only the Islamist religious parties really operate out of ideology.

Alex Thier says several things have prevented true democracy from taking hold in Pakistan. "The first is the lack of true civilian control over the military and the armed forces," he said.

"The second is a lack of political parties that are not based on personalities or charisma, that are actually based on some sort of platform and that engender widespread popular support or popular participation in the political process. The third is the lack of rule of law, and particularly the lack of independent judiciary," he added.

The military has always been at least a power broker in Pakistan, even when not governing outright. Analysts note that General Musharraf's bloodless 1999 coup in which he ousted Nawaz Sharif was at first widely hailed in Pakistan for breaking the political gridlock of Sharif and Bhutto. But discontent with Musharraf grew, and Sharif and Bhutto entered into an alliance of convenience to force his ouster. The Sharif-Zardari alliance has now come apart.

The unanswered question is, what will the military do as Pakistan faces another political crisis?

Larry Goodson, who emphasizes he is expressing his personal views, says Pakistan's top military officer, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, understands very well how the political game is played.

"We would say if he were an American general that he was carrying out the orders of his superiors and engaged in following the national interests of the state, he said. "Well, the only difference in this case is that he's the Pakistani COAS [Chief of Army Staff], so the national interests in some respects are what he deems them to be because he's this very powerful actor."

Alex Thier believes the army doesn't want to take a direct role again after its reputation was battered by the Musharraf experience.

"I think the more likely scenario is that the military and the security services will work behind the scenes potentially if things get so bad to bring down the government, but not to step in as a military government but rather to engineer some form of political change - which is essentially what they did in the 1990s," said Thier.

Analysts add that President Zardari has never managed to exert true civilian control over the army.

XS
SM
MD
LG