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Yet another Pakistani political crisis

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zardariBy Imran Khan 

The news that the key ally in Pakistan's coalition government has pulled out of the already fragile coalition, comes as a surprise to exactly ... no one.

In quitting government the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or the MQM, is playing a game that is regular feature of Pakistani politics.

It's game of brinkmanship, when a political party uses its leverage to get what it wants. Normally it picks a popular issue and uses that as an excuse to put pressure on the government. In this case it's fuel prices.

We have seen this before.

After the election in 2008, this was a government built on uneasy alliances. Making up the government were the big victors - the Pakistan People's Party. Then came the smaller parties: the Pakistan Muslim League-N led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a loose affiliation of religious parties, and the MQM. All had competing agendas.

Jostling for influence

Sharif's PML-N pulled out early, saying that the government had backtracked on promises to restore the judiciary sacked under the military dictator, Pervez Musharraf.

After much backroom deal-making, various political groups jostled for influence. Sharif decided to take a back seat, of sorts. One of his key advisers told me that this government would soon implode, it didn't need any help from his party.

Then followed a period of calm. When I say calm, I mean that by Pakistani politics standards.

There was the fake degrees scandal, then President Asif Ali Zardari faced legal action over corruption charges, there was Asia Bibi's case - a Christian women arrested under a controversial blasphemy laws.

All the while those in opposition used each twist to batter the government.

Among Pakistanis, this was  just run-of-the-mill political shenanigans that made for entertaining news shows, but no serious threat to the government.

But for a few hours on Monday morning, Pakistan felt like it could see early elections, that this government could fall. The MQM's decision to quit had people spooked. This was a big deal.

But then, just when some thought the MQM would deliver the killer punch - nothing.

The MQM announced that it would not seek to oust the government by declaring a motion of no-confidence.

That would have required unity among the opposition who are bitterly divided. Any no-confidence motion would have sparked early elections and potentially forced this government out.

That was the turning point.

Potential disaster

A political disaster simply became yet another political crisis. There seems to be a very simple reason for this. No one wants to see this government fall: not anyone in the opposition, not even in the army - the traditional coup makers of Pakistan.

This government needs to serve a full term. Democracy needs to be seen to work in Pakistan. If this government falls early, what is to stop the PPP, when in opposition, to devote its energies into bringing down the next one?

History has proved that could easily happen. The 1990s saw the two main parties, led by Sharif and the now murdered Benazir Bhutto, respectively, in and out of government.

Neither served a full term. Whatever Pakistanis think of their politicians, the politicians understand Pakistanis.

Clearly most in the country are frustrated with the political machinations and want democracy to work. So, no matter how unpopular, this government gets it that it is likely to survive.

The MQM fully understand this. It has made a play.

It is probable that MQM leaders will get some concessions from the prime minister and return to the government. They win, the government survives. But this is Pakistan and nothing surprises anyone, anymore.

Watch your screens - this political crisis could yet turn into a political disaster.

Imran Khan, a Doha-based correspondent, is reporting from across Pakistan.


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