Prime minister Benazir Bhutto remains unreconciled to the loss of the NWFP government to the PML(N)-ANP alliance. In an assembly of 83 members, the PPP won the largest number of provincial seats (24) in the last elections but was unable to assemble a coalition government even with the help of its electoral allies. The ANP-PML(N)-alliance, on the other hand, lured 11 “independents” to its fold and thwarted the PPP’s ambitions.
But not for long, it seems. The floor-crossing ordinance promulgated by Mr Moeen Qureshi lapsed on February 7th because Ms Bhutto willed it so. Sensing their opportunity, nine fickle independents, who had earlier grabbed chief minister Sabir Shah by the throat, have now decided to stick the knife in and finish him off. The glittering charm of Mr Sharif and his cronies has worn thin while Ms Bhutto’s beckons anew.
The vote of no-confidence against Mr Shah proposed by Mr Aftab Sherpao last week was not unexpected. The opposition’s attitude towards Ms Bhutto has been patently hostile. Mr Sharif, in particular, has done his best to try and stonewall her labours in and out of parliament. Mr Shah, too, has been making uncompromising noises over the Kalabagh Dam and the Ghazi-Barotha power project, both close to the PM’s heart. If Ms Bhutto is now paying them back in the same vulgar coinage, we can hardly feign surprise.
Of course, Ms Bhutto is on solid constitutional ground as she manipulates change in the Frontier assembly. And of course the furious denunciations of Messrs Nawaz Sharif & Wali Khan threatening violence are totally misplaced. Nonetheless, most Pakistanis remain wary of parliamentary shenanigans (horsetrading, kidnapping, court cases, etc.) which poison the political environment and destabilise the country. If we have been critical of Mr Sharif’s belligerence in the past, we are not likely to warm towards Ms Bhutto’s offensive now.
The vote of no-confidence against Mr Sabir Shah could incur prohibitive costs. While Ms Bhutto might consider a few broken chairs and microphones in parliament a small price to pay for capturing the provincial government, the aftermath of broken bones and skulls is more problematic. A clash between the provincial police and the federal law-enforcing agencies is an altogether different and acutely perilous matter. And if the army is called out, we might as well call it a day and throw in the towel.
Obviously Ms Bhutto reckons she can get away with it. Maybe she can, if only narrowly. But if she can’t, which is possible, she will rue the day she gave in to Mr Aftab Sherpao.
There is no guarantee that if Mr Sherpao is successful in toppling Mr Shah, the new coalition government will be any more stable or secure. The lying, cheating, immoral “independents” who embraced Mr Shah not long ago and have now blithely turned their back on him will most certainly blackmail Mr Sherpao and exact a heavy price for supporting him. If he accedes to their demands, he can hardly run a clean and efficient ship. If he doesn’t, his government will be rocked by one crisis after another, making a mockery of Ms Bhutto’s claims of providing stability to the country. Heads Mr Sharif wins, tails Ms Bhutto loses.
Ms Bhutto should pause and reflect on Mr Sherpao’s advice, given that he must have a vested personal interest in becoming chief minister. The situation is akin to that of 1989 in the Punjab when she was erroneously advised to get rid of Mr Sharif by a gang of PPP loyalists out of jobs in the province. She is still paying the price for committing that blunder. Another unpleasant analogy with Mufti Mahmud’s NWFP government under Z A Bhutto’s regime in 1974 also comes to mind.
If all this is evident enough, the wisdom of Ms Bhutto’s move is seriously questionable. We might also ask why Mr Sharif has deliberately provoked her to such desperation. Are both political leaders obsessed with some sort of death-wish to drag each other and the nation down? Does Ms Bhutto think she can erode Mr Sharif’s popularity by denying him a moth-eaten government in the NWFP? Does Mr Sharif believe he can reap windfall profits from plunging her government into one crisis after another? By knocking each other, they are only knocking the political system. If the system goes under, they will both drown. Last July they came perilously close to disgracing the system irreparably. Today it appears they have learnt little, if anything, from past experience.
It is said President Farooq Leghari advised Ms Bhutto to withdraw Mr Faisal Hayat from the Punjab and give Mr Wattoo a chance to prove his credentials. This makes sense. The confusion in the Punjab has now made way for stability. That is the sort of thinking which is required again. If Mr Sabir Shah refuses to play ball with Islamabad, far better to leave him to his miserable devices so that he can discredit himself further than to try and get rid of him and shame yourself in the process.