Masked paramilitary forces carried out an armed raid on the headquarters of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Pakistan’s fourth largest political party this week. One person was killed, at least 27 party workers were arrested and a collection of small arms was confiscated by the Pakistan Rangers. The immediate aftermath of the operation, however, is more questions than answers.
MQM, the political party that announced it would sit on opposition benches earlier this week announced today that it is returning to the government coalition following an agreement to defer economic reforms.
As we wrote last month, MQM’s move wasn’t a sign of a political ‘crisis’, but a natural part of coalition politics, especially in an emerging democracy where all parties are experimenting with strategies to maximize their influence.
It was notable, though rarely noted at the time, that even the PML-N – the largest opposition party – denied that the government was threatened. Unfortunately, this did not stop opportunistic headline writers from announcing the government’s imminent ‘collapse’ – predictions that a resilient government coalition continues to defy.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani announced that certain economic reforms would be deferred until consensus can be reached among the parties. While this has caused some concern among IMF economists, the decision must be considered in light of Pakistan’s political situation.
The largest opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz faction (PML-N), continues to be a vocal opponent to the reforms. If MQM and other smaller parties were to abandon the PPP in a vote of no confidence and a PML-N led coalition were to win off-year elections, the reforms would not only not pass, they would not even be taken up for consideration.
The fact that the PPP government has had to defer the proposed package of economic reforms demonstrates that the political will is simply not there to move forward with these changes at this time. That said, the PPP’s willingness to support the reforms until it threatened to upend the government demonstrates that they are serious about getting Pakistan’s tax-to-GDP ratio under control.
Pakistan is not unique in its populist (and pseudo-populist) opposition to measures intended to repair revenue gaps. People enjoy government services such as Pakistan’s subsidized fuel prices, but are not eager to part with the taxes necessary to fund them. We see the same disconnect here in the United States as Republicans and Democrats spar over how to pay for popular government programs without unpopular taxes and fees.
Unlike the United States, though, Pakistan does not enjoy the relative peace and prosperity that allows our own Congress to put off reforms. While the announcement that reforms will be deferred is a setback, it’s not a repudiation of the policy. Rather, it’s a acknowledgment that more needs to be done to bring Pakistan’s other parties on board. To this end, bringing the MQM back into the fold is the first step towards economic recovery.
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.