Just six months after the elections, Pakistan’s governing coalition has foundered. This is not a good development because it predicts even more instability in a situation, which is already extremely tense.
The democrats’ big coalition held just long enough for them to get rid of their biggest antagonist. But one week after Pervez Musharraf resigned as president, Nawaz Sharif pulled his party out of the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition.
The collapse of the coalition will not cause the government to fall but it does represent a heavy setback for the long-term democratisation process in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif cannot be blamed. He did everything to keep the coalition afloat. But PPP leader Asif Zardari overstepped the mark with his behaviour.
Right from the start, the crux of the matter lay in the restoration of the judges sacked by Musharraf in autumn 2007. In their coalition agreement, Pakistan’s ruling parties ceremoniously agreed to reinstate the judges but the PPP never made any effort to do so in practice. The last straw were the comments of Benazir Bhutto’s widower Zardari to the effect that the agreement’s text was not holy like the Koran, and therefore not binding.
Another bone of contention was the discussion about Musharraf’s successor. Zardari wants to become president himself. And he does not seem ready to give up the additional presidential powers Musharraf granted himself -- for instance, the power to dissolve parliament.
But Zardari and the People’s Party have not got themselves too much into a scrape. There are enough opportunists in parliament who will support the government and cast their vote for Zardari as president on Sept. 6. No doubt, in an added twist, several members of Musharraf’s party will also do so.
But things are not likely to settle down in Pakistan’s political landscape. This is not the urgently needed democratic new beginning. Nicknamed “Mr Ten Percent”, Zardari was charged with corruptions. The charges were dropped only as part of a deal between Musharraf and the PPP. If Zardari hampers the reinstatement of the judges, there are many in Pakistan who are rightly wondering what will differentiate President Zardari from President Musharraf. Once again someone who is mainly interested in his own power and ready to defend it will all the clean and dirty methods available to him will be at the top.
Over the next few weeks, the political conflict will also be taken onto the streets. The lawyers will protest again, supported by Nawaz Sharif’s party, as well as other politicians and representatives of civil society.
The matters to which the government should actually be devoting itself are being neglected. Above all, of course, security and the threat of the Taliban but also the economic crisis; rising prices and electricity failures are having dramatic consequences on the population.
The only hope is that pressure from the street and the public helps the People’s Party find its way back onto the path of democratisation, which includes reinstating the judges. It would be naïve for Asif Zardari to think he can repeat the divisive party politics that defined 1990s Pakistan. Naïve but also dangerous. Because it is crystal clear what such politics always lead to in Pakistan. To a military coup.