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A game-changing deal?

December 01, 2012


ARE you a bit bored? With this whole politics thing at the moment?

It seems quite stale all of a sudden. Gone is the riveting drama, the over-the-top theatre, the breathless uncertainty, the sound and the fury. Even the kooky conspiracy theories are struggling to gain much traction.

The problem is the election: there will be one but its inching closer at a glacial pace. Spring feels like an eternity away.

In the land of perma-crisis and forever churning political waters, this pause is almost unreal. Surely something must be afoot.

There is stuff afoot; just not necessarily of the kind speculation is focusing on. Think less coup or elections deferred and more the hard slog of pre-electoral politics: working the angles, oiling the campaign machine, putting the chess pieces in place.

The PPP is hard at work as is the PML-N, while the PTI has gone back to the drawing board. The PML-Q, ANP and the religious right are all trying to figure out how to hold on to their pieces of the electoral jigsaw.

Amidst all the shoring up of defences and quiet canvassing for support, there is one idea that neither the PPP nor the PML-N dare speak the name of, but it does continue to hang in the political air: an electoral understanding between the two parties in Punjab.

In theory, at least, it’s a tantalising idea. Punjab, the key to any electoral math, is what the Sharifs care about most and where the PPP needs a chunk of seats to hold on to power at the centre.

In an era of coalition politics, splitting Punjab three, or four or five, ways guarantees a weak government at the centre and would imperil the Sharifs’ control of Punjab at the provincial level.

A weaker central government, dependent on multiple allies with an increased seat count from the present assembly, suits neither the PML-N nor the PPP — in theory at least — because it’ll be just that much harder to get anything done, good or bad.

So, enlightened self-interest, of a qualitatively different kind to that seen so far, could push for a deal between Zardari and Sharif.

Let the big boys get what they need from Punjab — for the Sharifs, tightening their grip in the provincial assembly and slapping down any threat at the federal level from the PTI; for Zardari, enough of a harvest of seats at the centre to chart a path to five more years — and ensure no one crashes their party come next spring.

But is the self-interest of Zardari and Sharif enlightened enough?

In the world of subtle political shifts, Zardari and Sharif have appeared to close ranks on occasion over the life of the present assemblies. But it’s mostly been in response to perceived threats from the army.

If the self-appointed custodians of the national interest make a move, you lose and I lose — both Zardari and Sharif have internalised that and given each other space to manoeuvre for survival when they’ve felt the threat grow.

But that threat is more about the circumvention of elections, not picking favourites come election time.

The more the army seems hands-off as the election nears, the less the value of that threat to focus the minds of Zardari and Sharif.

The other big incentive for a power-sharing agreement was the rise of the PTI. Cut a deal to save the status quo or risk both being swept away by the PTI. Except the PTI hasn’t quite lived up to the hype.

Nothing left to enlighten Zardari and Sharif’s self interest, then?

The problem is more that both camps are increasingly confident of their electoral strategy in Punjab.

Zardari thinks he can still grab Punjab, or at least enough of a slice of Punjab to complement the haul from Sindh and Balochistan to hold on in Islamabad.

The Sharifs think their party has bounced back from the body blow Imran Khan landed in October 2011. Now, the Sharifs believe, the party is in fighting condition to consolidate its grip over Punjab in the provincial assembly and muscle its way to becoming the largest party in the National Assembly.

The Zardari logic seems more bluster than fact at the moment, but the Sharifs may just be right: they have flexed their muscles and found Punjab still responds to the Sharif might.

Knowing that, the dealmaker in Zardari may be tempted to think about a deal instead of rolling the dice in Punjab — present projection of confidence notwithstanding.

But for all of Zardari’s charm — should he choose to deploy it — the Sharif arrogance can be hard to overcome.

A year since the PTI earthquake in Lahore, the PML-N thinks it has more than made amends and is even eyeing power in Islamabad.

The assumption, though, is that the PTI will not get a second wind. That having peaked too early, the party is in inexorable decline and can’t and won’t bounce back.

Looking at Khan, you can’t really see him coming up with fresh ideas between now and spring. But Khan doesn’t need to dominate Punjab to upset the PML-N’s plans, or the PPP’s projections.

If conventional wisdom has it that Khan would win just 20 seats were elections to be held tomorrow, better organisation and smarter campaigning could eke out a further chunk of seats in a crowded field.

The deepest irony in the PPP and PML-N’s resistance to a deal and Zardari and Sharif’s conviction they’ve got the math on their individual sides?

They look a bit like Musharraf going into February 2008.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm