POLITICS is a funny ol’ sport. A few weeks ago, Asif Zardari was looking near invincible. He had neutralised his enemies, the path to the next election was looking smooth, the PPP was putting in place the planks of a successful re-election strategy.
And then reality intervened.
The accidental president reverted to being his own worst enemy. By first unleashing Zulfi Mirza and then sending in Babar Awan to clean up the mess in Karachi, Zardari has looked more amateur than auteur.
Improbably, after trying to woo the semi-existent Sindhi nationalist vote by smacking around the MQM, Zardari may actually have ended up creating a proper Sindhi nationalist vote bank — which may have turned against the PPP.
The violence in Karachi doesn’t really bother the PPP brain trust. They know that violence per se isn’t likely to affect how people vote the next time round: the MQM supporter will still vote for the MQM, the PPP supporter for the PPP and the ANP for the ANP, etc.
But the flip-flop on local government has given the Sindhi nationalist parties a rallying cry and, more unsettling from the PPP’s point of view, a reason to coalesce.
Analogous to the JI, the Sindhi nationalists have long held street power but fared poorly at the ballot box. But with Babar Awan crafting a return to the much-disliked Musharraf era local-government system for Sindh, the traditionally fractious Sindhi nationalist parties are edging towards a common platform — a development that could disrupt the PPP’s electoral plans for Sindh.
It’s a long way to the election, though, and the Sindhi nationalist parties aren’t exactly known for being the smartest cookies in the box, so they may yet fail to take any real advantage of the PPP’s error.
Besides, the PPP has two advantages of its own. One, the miffed Sindhi can always be mollified closer to the election if the PPP hits the right emotional buttons on Sindhi vs migrant.
And two, as a PPP insider put it, ‘the army will always be patriotic, the mullah will always be religious and the PPP will always be Sindh’.
Yet, while the deadly farce in Karachi over the last month may not change the electoral dynamics of Sindh come election time, they have hurt the PPP politically — and reminded everyone that Zardari can step on his own tail.
In politics perception can be everything. With the PPP looking weak and incompetent, rivals elsewhere will take heart. If nothing else, the calls for army intervention in Karachi, slyly egged on by a section of the media, will keep the PPP on the defensive for some time.
But it isn’t a full-blown crisis yet and time is on Zardari’s side. By dipping into his bag of tricks he can still coax the MQM back on board, stabilise Karachi somewhat and get back to scheming at the national level. (Never say never in Pakistan, but don’t believe that bunkum about Sharif forcing early elections.)
Barring the unexpected, Zardari’s next test will be the Senate elections. The electoral map suggests the PPP is set to go from being the single largest party with over a quarter of the 100 seats to one with nearly half of the 104 seats (post 18th Amendment, four minority seats have been added).
Zardari though is believed to be eyeing an outright majority for the PPP. Getting the PPP to 53 seats, as opposed to, say, somewhere in the mid-40s, will involve getting coalition allies to support PPP Senate candidates. No prizes for guessing what that would involve.
It would be quintessential Zardari: cutting deals, coaxing and cajoling, shrewd calculations and hardnosed bargains.
So, grabbing a simple majority in the Senate next March is the next challenge. After that comes the real biggie: when to pull the trigger on general elections.
Once past the Senate elections next March, there is no incentive to hang on until 2013 other than the ambition of completing a full term. But is going for the lustrum — a five-year term — worth the lost lustre of another year of bumbling governance?
The thing is, there are only two real windows of opportunity. The first is immediately after the Senate elections.
If Zardari doesn’t roll the dice after next March, his government will quickly be caught in the next budgetary cycle — a cycle in which the country is expected to run out of money and have to resort to either a painful external-assistance programme or an inflationary printing-money approach.
Of course, a budgetary exercise can swing the other way, too: pad the budget with enough goodies to throw around in favourable constituencies and it could more than compensate for the pain the other parts of the budget will bring.
More important from an electoral perspective, then, is that the mercury will rise sharply after March, heralding a long, hot summer with little electricity. It isn’t exactly smart politics to go out and ask for votes when people are toughing it out without electricity in sweltering conditions.
So we’re into September 2012 at least before the people start to cool down, literally. From there, it will take a couple of months for the people to forget the travails of summer and the politicians to become enthusiastic about going out and canvassing for votes.
By which point March 2013 will be around the corner and the boast of completing a full term within touching distance.
So here’s the decision for Zardari and the PPP: go for early elections immediately after the Senate win has been notched up and there’s little left to be won politically or wait another year to crow about an unprecedented full term, though tempered by the reality of a fifth year of misrule and misgovernance?
Which would you choose? Zardari hasn’t made up his mind yet. It’ll be an interesting few months ahead.
The writer is a member of staff.