Why Pakistan’s Political ‘Crisis’ Isn’t One

December 30, 2010

President Zardari meets with MQM delegation

President Zardari meets with an MQM delegation to discuss their concerns.

Despite Chicken Little headlines declaring the government in ‘crisis,” the political negotiations in Pakistan are a natural part of parliamentary politics and, some analysts suggest, point to progress in the nation’s democracy.

The decision by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party to leave its seats in the federal cabinet – but remain on the treasury benches – has surprised political analysts who see the move as strategically questionable.

Leaders from the nation’s largest opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz faction (PML-N), have exchanged harsh words with the MQM following their decision. In fact, the two parties are historically less politically aligned than the MQM-PPP alliance, and many suspect that MQM, with 25 seats in parliament, would have less influence under a coalition headed by the PML-N.

Still, the government is taking MQM’s concerns quite seriously. President Zardari has forbidden party officials from speaking ill of coalition members, and has reached out to MQM chief Altaf Hussain to assure him that the PPP will address his party’s concerns. Sindh Home Minister Dr. Zulfiqar Mirza, who earlier this month accused MQM activists of perpetrating political violence in Karachi, has offered to take a back seat to ease MQM concerns.

While some suggest that the move could result in mid-term elections, that does not seem likely. Pakistani analyst Cyril Almeida notes that a no-confidence vote in the parliament is mathematically impossible without PML-N support, a position opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar has previously dismissed.

With the ongoing threat from extremist groups, a fragile – albeit improving – economy, and a struggling energy sector, one would not be surprised to see the PML-N decide to let the PPP finish its term if only to bolster their own chances in the 2013 elections.

Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi, president of the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce–USA, writes for Pakistan’s Daily Times that mid-term elections would be counterproductive at this late stage in the government’s tenure.

Mid-term elections will just be a game of musical chairs between the existing cadres of leaders but will cost the nation a lot of money and loss of productivity in the economy. There are only two years left in the term of the current government, which is not a long time to wait. During this time, the local bodies’ elections should be held so that an institution for future leaders is reinstated. These elections will be a litmus test of the nation’s choice for the next government in the province and Centre.

All things considered, it is not unusual to see internal coalition politics get messy, especially in countries with relatively young democratic systems. An editorial in today’s Dawn explains that the political dance is not unusual in coalition politics, and the way that all parties are handling themselves is encouraging.

With the PPP about a third of the way from having a majority in the National Assembly, the role of the supporting cast is crucial, and that was always going to be fertile ground for uncertainty. However, in a welcome sign that perhaps Pakistani politicians have matured somewhat, not a single political player of any significance has suggested his intention is to remove the government or perhaps even derail the democratic process.

Though the US is not a parliamentary democracy, I’m sure that President Obama can closely sympathize with his Pakistani counterpart Asif Zardari’s situation. Trying to hold together a coalition of politicians eager to demonstrate their independence and with their own political ambitions is no easy feat. That he’s managed to do so despite the challenges his government has faced is a testament not only to President Zardari’s staying power, but to an often underestimated political astuteness. As coalition partners negotiate, one things looks clear – the present government is navigating the tumultuous waters of democracy quite well.