Political Tensions Continue but PML-N Gov’t Remains Secure

Publication Date: 10 June 2014
Edition: Volume I, Issue 5


Relations between the army and the civilian government have been strained from the start of this year, with the army opposed to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to engage in peace talks with the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan and try former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf for high treason. The attempted assassination of GEO News reporter Hamid Mir in April, which the network blamed on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, added fuel to a fire that had been easing, creating new fault lines in Pakistan with Mir’s employer and the civilian government on one side, and competing news organizations, some opposition parties, and the army on the other.

  • The Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) federal government remains secure in power despite its extended standoff with the army. However, the government’s position becomes more precarious if additional first or second-tier parties join the anti-government movement.
  • The PML-N is increasingly accused of favoring the Punjab province, its base. This is perhaps the party’s greatest vulnerability and provides an opportunity for a broad spectrum number of parties to bandwagon against it.

The PML-N and the Pakistan Army are in the midst of a proxy war being fought through GEO News, which has sided with the civilian government, and a collection of mainly weak opposition parties and rival media outlets that are supporting the army. While it is GEO News that is taking the flak from the army and its supporters, there is risk that the civilian government will be pulled back in to the fight.

  • The PML-N has conceded wide space to the army, which has forced the nominally civilian-run Defense Ministry to press for the cancellation of the operating license of GEO News, coaxed the lead media regulatory authority to suspend GEO News, and organized protests across the country in support of the ISI.
  • Currently, it appears that the PML-N’s strategic retreat has worked. The federal government remains solidly in control of truly important ‘terrain,’ while it is GEO News that has taken the blows in the ongoing proxy war between the army and the PML-N.
  • But GEO News has not backed down as a result of the pressure from the army, other media networks, political parties, and regulatory bodies. The editorial line of the station and its sister print publications remains defiant. GEO News’s parent company, the Jang Group, has even decided to sue the ISI for defamation. The longer the crisis continues without one side backing down, the greater the probability the PML-N will be directly involved in the fight. If GEO News continues with its lawsuit against the ISI and the army presses for a stronger penalty on the television channel (e.g. a cancellation of its operating license), then the PML-N will be forced to push back against the army’s pressure lest it lose a major ally in the private media. Should GEO News be permanently taken off air, the private media space will be effectively converted into pro-army mouthpieces.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party led by ex-cricketer Imran Khan is leveraging the anti-GEO campaign to destabilize the government. But his coalition is weak. A practical aim for PTI would be to pressure the PML-N to enact electoral reforms.

  • PTI has leveraged the anti-GEO campaign to give life to his fledgling party and campaign against the federal government. But Khan leads an anti-government movement made up of parties with little to no parliamentary presence. Though PTI is effectively tied with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for the second largest share of National Assembly seats, the remaining parties in his alliance have a total of around half a dozen seats in total.
  • While the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leads the opposition in parliament, PTI leads the opposition in the streets. With extremely low parliamentary attendance over the past year, the PML-N is unwittingly legitimizing street protests as a means of settling political disputes and demonstrating strength.
  • PTI stands to gain from an all-out clash between the PML-N and the army. But the best PTI can achieve in the current scenario is to use its bully pulpit to press for electoral reforms that could aid it in the next general elections, scheduled to take place in 2018. If PTI is able to produce evidence to back up its claims that the 2013 elections were rigged in favor of the PML-N, then not only will it be able to make a stronger case for electoral reforms, but it could also deliver a decisive blow to the government’s legitimacy.

While the PPP is mired in a stunted rebuilding process, it and other key opposition political parties are actively avoiding aiding the military and opponents of the civilian government.

  • The PPP, which formally leads the opposition in the National Assembly, has avoided actions that could facilitate a military coup or aid PTI. For the PPP, both the PML-N and PTI are rivals. But the PML-N, like the PPP, is invested in the status quo system and is a lesser of two evils for it when compared to PTI, which seeks major reforms.
  • The PPP remains in a state of paralysis. Neither former President Asif Ali Zardari nor his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari are publicly active. There is also reportedly disfunction in the party as father and son are of two minds on many issues, and PPP officials are having difficulty determining whose instructions to follow. The public face of the PPP is effectively Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, whose performance has been damaging for the party’s reputation. His callous indifference toward a famine in the Thar region earlier this year has bolstered the party’s reputation as a collection of feckless feudals.
  • The Jamiat Ulema-e Islam – Fazl (JUI-F) party has distanced itself from the federal government and will likely to continue to back away from the PML-N as military operations in North Waziristan escalate. But it is a pragmatic party that is disinclined to side with the army. As a result, the JUI-F leadership will exercise restraint by criticizing the government’s policies without consciously aiding military intervention in the political process. Much like the PPP, the JUI-F views PTI as a rival.

Opposition parties are increasingly vocal in criticizing the PML-N of excessive focus on Punjab. Should the MQM face a leadership crisis if Altaf Hussain is arrested and tried for money laundering or murder, then it too could join the bandwagon and unite its rank and file by playing the anti-Punjab card.

  • This week, both PTI’s Imran Khan and the PPP’s Khursheed Shah accused the government of favoring the Punjab province at the cost of the welfare of the rest of the country.
  • Pashtun politicians have recently criticized the PML-N-run Punjab provincial government for its curb on wheat supplies to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, due to a dispute over pricing.
  • In April, Abid Sher Ali, the brash federal minister of state for water and power, was criticized by politicians in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province for threatening to shut off the electricity service to the province due to non-payment of electricity bills.
  • The MQM could join the anti-government movement if Britain moves forward with the prosecution of Altaf Hussain for money laundering or murder. Facing the threat of internal fissures, MQM officials could opt to try to hold the party together by pitting the blame on the PML-N government, especially if Islamabad decides to provide British investigators with access to two suspected in the murder of former MQM official Imran Farooq, The MQM, which has a history of playing the anti-Punjab card, might find the need to pull it out of its pocket once again.
  • After the arrest of Hussain, PTI’s Khan expressed solidarity with MQM workers, despite being a vocal critic of the party. Khan hopes to appropriate the MQM’s supporters should the party disassemble or ally with an MQM faction to help bring down the Sharif government.
  • The PML-N government has managed to produce modest economic growth, boost investor confidence, and accrue major sources of rent or revenue, such as the wireless spectrum auction and the $1.5 billion provided by Riyadh. But Pakistan will have a long, hot summer with long stretches of scheduled and unscheduled electricity outages. It will need to manage public expectations to overcome this difficult hump.
  • Though it is GEO News that is taking the blows from the army and the opposition, the PML-N’s wounds from its clashes with the military earlier this year have not healed. As a result, another set of shocks, such as a series of major terrorist attacks in urban areas, a comprehensive breakdown in security in Karachi, or a major corruption scandal, will seriously erode the federal government’s hold on power.
  • In addition to the Karachi situation, another wildcard in the picture is the incoming Supreme Court chief justice, Nasir-ul-Mulk. The current senior-most judge, Tassaduq Jillani, retires next month. Jillani was far more restrained than his predecessor, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Whether or not Nasir-ul-Mulk chooses to continue with Jillani’s path of moderation remains to be seen.

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