A week or so into the Referendum process, the equation has changed drastically in favour of the President, the rallies to muster support having only marginally to do with it. While the process of transformation from a soldier to a soldier-politician will have created new dynamics in his personality, Pervez Musharraf will never become a politician. It is out of character for him to deliberately represent something as true when he knows it is untrue. Most politicians fail to accept something as true even when they know it to be such. On April 16 he did his best to sound political, the Press Conference only managed to reinforce his military identity. Even his apology for the more-loyal-than-king police baton charge on journalists in Faisalabad was revealing, he did not like what happened and therefore was not averse to the need for “damage control” but as the Commanding Officer he took responsibility for the action of his subordinates and was not about to throw the Punjab Governor to the wolves.
What the President has managed in the past week is very far-reaching, a decisive shift in the political landscape in Pakistan. In the 1965 Presidential race between Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Mohtrama Fatima Jinnah, 80000 Basic Democrats acted as an electoral college. In 1984, Gen Ziaul Haq used Referendum as a sleight of hand. In keeping with his character and his penchant for taking calculated risks Pervez Musharraf has opted for a far more transparent process, a mixture of 1965 and 1984 with the realities on the ground in 2002. By choosing direct universal franchise over the indirect process of an electoral college, Musharraf has pre-empted democratic protest by reaching into the very basics of democracy. And very intelligently he has put the Nazims and Naib Nazims of the Local Bodies under notice to get off the fence and be counted, using the grassroots rulers as vote musterers rather than being voters only. Everyone and his uncle knows that while the Local Bodies election were fought on a non-party basis, nearly 80% of these elected owe their existence to one party or the other. Once in power in various municipalities, the elected officials have been forced to stay with the “party-less” fiction, according to the laws availing they could be disqualified. Moreover, those who have been elected to the Local Bodies have a vested interest in keeping the system in place. Virtually a District Governor, a Nazim has authentic political power in his area, far more than any MNA/MPA had, or even a Federal/Provincial Minister. Why should he voluntarily give up the new status quo, he has far more power being elected locally than being a small cog in the nation’s capitals. The result has been nothing short of devastating.
Except maybe for those with Jamaat-e-Islami credentials, the major political parties opposing Pervez Musharraf have seen a majority of their Nazims and Naib Nazims willingly abandon the party platform, both the PPP and PML (N) have been very badly affected. While for the PML (N) such defection is nothing new, for the PPP which does not have such a dubious tradition, it is cataclysmic. Usually resurgent under military rule, they have failed to attract youth since 1983, at the same time losing women voters by droves except in a few party strongholds. The PPP was hoping to emerge as the single largest political party in the Oct 2002 elections, it might find itself under siege in their traditional favourite hunting grounds. In upper Sindh the PPP’s hold will be contested by the Sindh Democratic Alliance (SDA) and in Southern Punjab by a coalition of Millat Party, PML (QA), Tehrik-i-Insaf and others. The force of President’s personality and his track record has stirred “the great silent majority” so that their elected representatives at the grassroots level know where their sympathies lie. Seeing the writing on the wall, the elected representatives have shifted gears to be in sync with the wishes of the electorate they represent. The “defections” have been so numerous and so blatant, Ms Benazir has become desperate enough to threaten to come back from self-imposed exile to rally her supporters.
A crude poll (the PATHFINDER POLL) conducted by Research & Collection Services (RCS) over 93 cities and towns reveals that in the Punjab, voter sentiment is in the President’s favour 73% in urban areas 81% in rural areas, Sindh 68% urban 38% rural, Balochistan 65% urban 50% rural and NWFP 63% urban and 61% rural. In Sindh the percentage goes down in some hard-core PPP areas quite drastically, water is also a major issue in interior Sindh. Overall the percentage figures are computed at 65% in favour, a conservative figure that has been deliberately reduced by 4% keeping in view many extraneous factors. This figure will go up in the referendum itself as not more than 30% of the 35% saying “no” will actually go out to vote. This may make the referendum figure a lop sided positive 89.5%. However about the same number supporting Musharraf will stay at home, some out of lethargy, some out of over-confidence that the President will win anyway. So the figure of 65% saying “yes” is about accurate. It is very important to get out the vote. Expatriate Pakistanis are in any case reporting 90% in favour, such is the devastating vote of confidence rendered by our overseas citizens. For the first time, there is a favourable perception among Pakistanis abroad for the government in power. Since the Nazims and Naib Nazims are far closer to the people they represent than any poll can really calculate, the shifting of their loyalties is based on this similiar perception through the length and breadth of the country.
Suddenly the politicians find themselves an endangered species. Starting his quest a week or so ago, Musharraf was very keen to get all the political support he could, in the process he finds he needs the people more than the politicians. The tables have been turned, the politicians need him, certainly he does not need them. In fact he would be well advised not being identified with any single grouping. It was a brilliant idea to share the podium only the Nazims/Naib Nazims and keep politicians at an arms length. It also gave the local leaders the taste of power. When questioned as to why they support Pervez Musharraf over his predecessors, over 80% of the masses say they do so because he is honest as compared to his predecessors, many added that much more needed to be done but at least he was trying to change their lives for the better. Almost all had a litany of woes but the recurring theme was of sincerity of effort.
The next two weeks will permanently change the country’s political dynamics even before the Oct 2002 elections. There is no doubt about the broad mass of peoples support for the President, one remains concerned about the logistics of the referendum despite the fact that at least 100000 polling booths will be available. A king’s party may be counter-productive, he should support political groupings. Gen Ziaul Haq’s 1984 exercise destroyed the process of Referendum as a credible political exercise, only a reasonable turnout (over 30%) on Referendum Day will restore that credibility. A day before he announced the Referendum I tried my level best in a one-on-one to dissuade the President from this perilous course where he will become “an opportunity target” for every two bit politician. A week or so later it is now clear that the President’s courage has paid dividends, he took a calculated risk by going for the Referendum but the creation of “the rainbow coalition” in his support will have far-reaching effect for the nation far into the future.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).