Signs of new alignment

Published Nov 16, 2006 12:00am

ISLAMABAD: The new and amended version of the Women’s Protection Bill passed on Wednesday may not be a major landmark in the campaign against the country’s anti-women laws, particularly some of the controversial Hudood ordinances. The form in which the bill has been passed by the National Assembly is certainly not what women’s rights groups were campaigning for, or what opposition MNAs like Sherry Rehman or even some of government backbenchers like M.P. Bhandara and Kashmala Tariq were aiming for. Many of them had clearly called for the complete abolition of the discriminatory ordinances enforced by the late military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq to push the country towards a theocratic state. Even then it is the first piece of legislation that is likely to give a new and more interesting direction to national politics.

In fact, the passage of the women’s rights bill has opened up new avenues for possible readjustments amongst the political groupings, and may pave the way for redrawing of the political battle-lines in the run up to the 2007 general elections. So, if efforts were already being made for some kind of realignment on the basis of political beliefs, if not ideology, the bill may provide the right excuse to give them a decisive push. In some ways, the passage of this bill could be a watershed in the country’s political history, and most parties in parliament seem to be well aware of it.

So, it’s small wonder that the bill was passed without the kind of rowdy scenes and disruptions that were witnessed at the time when it was originally tabled. With stakes in the game already quite high, voting time was quite crucial. And the pattern indicates that despite their strong views on the matter, the major players have decided to keep their options open to allow further bargaining before the next elections are called.

Since President Pervez Musharraf wanted the bill to be passed without further amendments, the PML and its allies didn’t have much of a choice but to support the move. Still the Muslim League president, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, indirectly expressed his displeasure by offering to resign if, in his words, anything in the bill was found to be against the teachings of Islam.

The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal had earlier threatened to go for extreme action, indicating that its members might resign from parliament if, in the words of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, “such an un-Islamic piece of legislation is passed”. But his speech that marked the opening of the debate, though full of rhetoric about the bill being an attempt to create a free-sex society, was far from threatening. Qazi Hussain, who is believed to be a more radical hardliner among the Islamic alliance leaders, was conspicuous by his absence. And instead of resigning from the assembly, the MMA confined its protest to a token boycott.

The PML (N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was faced with a tough choice. When the bill was originally tabled some time back, one of the party leaders, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, had hinted that their party might side with the MMA. However, at the time of voting, the PML-N decided to abstain. It was a clear move to express its annoyance over the PPP’s decision to support a government-sponsored bill but without threatening the break-up of the main opposition alliance, ARD.

Perhaps the boldest, and in some ways also the most controversial, move was that of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. It was not an easy decision for the party, which for the last many years had been campaigning for Gen Musharraf to step down. For some of the party hardliners even the thought of supporting a military-led regime on any issue was blasphemous. But those close to Benazir Bhutto say that for a pragmatic person like her, politics has never been a zero-sum game.

The position her party took was that each ARD component has the right to take an independent position on issues, like the support for such a crucial piece of legislation. But many analysts say by taking such a crucial step Ms Bhutto has also sent an indirect message to Gen Musharraf and his backers about her renewed willingness to explore the possibility of a realignment on the basis of liberals and moderates taking on the Islamists in the next elections.

But is such a re-alignment possible?

It’s no secret that indirect channels of communication have remained open between Gen Musharraf and Ms Bhutto. In recent months both have avoided harsh criticism or a direct attack on each other, with speculations being rife that all but a few issues stand in the way of a pre-election agreement. Analysts say the biggest motivating factor has been the desire of regime’s backers to work towards the creation of a grouping to take on the Islamists in the next elections. Those close to Ms Bhutto say she too has been informed about such a desire, perhaps with a caveat that such a grouping will have to work under Gen Musharraf.

Even though the back-channel negotiations between the two sides have largely been on this basis, those claiming to be aware of such moves say a deal was still a distant dream.

And it’s mainly due to mistrust in the two camps about each other’s intentions in the post-election scenario. More recently there were talks of a deadlock on issues ranging from Musharraf’s uniform to the fate of corruption cases against Ms Bhutto.

So, even when the PPP-P has supported the bill to make its priority on the future politics of country clear, it has not closed down its option of returning to the rest of the opposition for a more formidable anti-Musharraf alliance, if the situation so demands.

Same has been the approach of the PML-N, which is neither willing to give up on the PPP-P nor willing to annoy the MMA.

The MMA too doesn’t look like a unified force. The process of the bill has exposed quite a few differences that have continued to create problems within the six-party Islamic alliance. The Jamaat-i-Islami has been pressing for a more hard-line position, even insisting on resigning from the assemblies, but Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI has its eyes on the next elections. The passage of the Hasba Bill in the North-West Frontier Province has given it a new slogan to go back to the electorate in the name of religion. Some even say that its soft peddling on the women rights bill could be to avoid the repetition of the earlier move by the federal government to block the Hasba bill from becoming a law.

In other words, the passage of the women’s rights bill by the National Assembly may have unfolded a new and perhaps a more treacherous round of politics in the coming weeks and months. How politics in the run up to the election shapes up could be anybody’s guess, but as things stand today, General Musharraf doesn’t look like a loser.


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