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Zardari, Nawaz and the factors

Unfortunately, external forces exercise an unjustifiable influence on Pakistan’s internal issues and politics. By external forces here I do not mean only the Unites States but also Britain, other European countries and the international financial institutions. Also, because of the peculiar nature of certain aspects of Pakistani politics, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Iran and Turkey also act as part of the ‘international establishment’. At times, they play an even more important role in decision making here than western states and personalities.

An analysis of their role in the last election and after could help us understand the exact nature of this influence and the impact it might have on the coming elections. On the whole, the international establishment put its weight behind the PPP before and after the last general elections. Though Saudi Arabia and Qatar did not agree to the idea, the UAE fully supported Benazir Bhutto and, after her death, Asif Ali Zardari.

The US and the UK played a pivotal role in the conclusion of the deal between Benazir Bhutto and Gen Pervez Musharraf. They acted as guarantors and were favourable to the PPP, the ANP and the MQM. If, after the polls, the Pakistani establishment had to accept Asif Ali Zardari as president, this was largely due to the fact that he was supported by the US, the UK and the UAE.

At the time, Nawaz Sharif was not very popular with the western states because of his stand over the war on terror. Pervez Musharraf was another reason for the west to reject the Nawaz option. Even Saudi Arabia was no fan of Nawaz; it felt cheated as he did not keenly follow the terms of the guarantee extended by Saudi Arabia on his behalf.

After the elections Zardari tried to return the favour done by the international establishment; he supported every single ‘option’ or step the international establishment thought should be taken in Pakistan. However, Zardari soon found himself facing a dilemma. When, at a critical stage, the Pakistani establishment and the international establishment stood face to face over the Abbottabad operation, the Salala check post attack and, more generally, over the future of Afghanistan, Zardari had to decide and he preferred the Pakistani establishment. He left foreign policy to the military and accepted the role of the implementer.

Zardari was, thus, used as a shield by the Pakistani establishment against the pressure of international influence and actors. Consequently, the west and their allies became increasingly irritated with Zardari and the international financial institutions were used against his government. But Zardari, instead of giving in, preferred to resist, using the tools of ploy and blackmail.

Though he did not finalise any single concrete project with Russia and China at the strategic front, he kept visiting those countries to blackmail policy-makers in the west. The US response to this was hostile and it became increasingly stern. This situation led to moves like the decisions on the Gwadar Port, and the Pak-Iran Gas Pipeline in the final days of the Zardari government. One recent, and very surprising and problematic development – at least for Zardari – has been the coming together of the international forces and the internal establishment. Their relations are friendly now to an extent that was unimaginable in the last five years. For Zardari this means trouble.

The US is annoyed over Gwadar and Saudi Arabia greatly resents the Pak-Iran Gas Pipeline. In the Middle East an open conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being seen as imminent. Right now, from Bahrain to Syria, they are at war with each other through their proxies. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait were never comfortable with Zardari but the Pak-Iran Pipeline is something very akin to the proverbial last straw.

As the elections approach, Saudi Arabia favours Nawaz Sharif and the same inclination is evident in the UK and the US in their warm and frequent contacts with Nawaz. Musharraf appears genuinely eager to return – proof of an international deal having seen the final shape. It is being said that assurances have been sought from Nawaz Sharif – that he will act softly towards Musharraf. Thus, in the coming election scenario, Nawaz Sharif enjoys the support of the international establishment.

Only Iran is going to support Zardari, but its influence on the decision-making bodies of Pakistan is marginal. In the past few years Turkey has emerged as a new international actor commanding a sizeable influence on decision making in this country. It has a soft corner for the JUI and the JI, but no one is its favourite. A while back it had focused attention on the PTI, but that is no more the case in the current situation. Turkey now favours Nawaz Sharif.

This model of analysis covers only one aspect of the situation – that of the international factors. If the external forces manage to prevail upon the internal forces, then indeed Nawaz Sharif is our future prime minister. However, external influence has its limits and is not always able to achieve what it desires in Pakistan.

The outcome of a general election in Pakistan is usually a product of the interplay of three factors: the external forces, the internal establishment and the ground realities. In this column I have analysed only the external factor. As for the second factor, contacts between Nawaz Sharif and the establishment, by now, are established but not warm. However, it seems that the international establishment will readily help bridge the remaining gap. Thus, the ultimate factor determining the fate of Nawaz Sharif is the third one. Everything depends on how much he can succeed in persuading the masses!

The writer works for Geo TV.Email: saleem.safi@janggroup.com.pk

Saleem Safi, "Zardari, Nawaz and the factors," The News. 2013-03-22.