Major options for the PPP
The exit of the JUI-F has strengthened the MQM position to apply pressure on the PPP and secure more political and material dividends. If the pressure tactics do not work, the MQM can exercise the withdrawal option. The exit of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) from the federal government on December 14 underlines the problems of managing a coalition of diverse political elements. This also shows how leaders pursue politics as a personality drive, and parties are narrowly focused on their agendas, making for a partisan interpretation of the national interest.
The JUI-F has eight members in the National Assembly but enjoyed a disproportionate share of the goodies of power. It had three cabinet positions until it decided to quit the cabinet. Its leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, is the chairman of the parliamentary committee on Kashmir and recently undertook a foreign trip ostensibly to propagate the cause of Kashmir. The JUI-F is well represented in other parliamentary committees and continues to be part of the coalition government with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in Balochistan. One of its senior members has recently been given the coveted post of the chairman Council of Islamic Ideology (CII).
Maulana Fazlur Rehman's decision to quit the coalition government was a retaliatory move against the removal of Azam Swati, a wealthy person known as one of the major financiers of the JUI-F. The maulana hardly acknowledged that the PPP also sacrificed its minister in this case. How long could the prime minister afford two cabinet members trading charges and counter-charges in public? It seems that the hajj arrangements were mismanaged and it created strong complaints of corruption. This episode revived the desire of the JUI-F to get the ministry of religious affairs, which seems to have acquired salience as the competition for power and influence has intensified between the champions of the Deobandi and Barelvi Islamic traditions.
The exit of the JUI-F does not pose any immediate threat to the PPP-led federal government. However, it has increased the importance of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the coalition. If the MQM also withdraws from the coalition, the PPP will have to look for new partners to save its government.
The MQM's politics revolves around sustaining its primacy in urban Sindh, especially in Karachi. It does not want the Awami National Party (ANP) or the PPP to challenge its ability to control rewards and punishment in Karachi. The hard core of these three parties clash with one another from time to time. Two weeks ago, Sindh's Interior Minister Zulfiqar Mirza lashed out at the MQM, holding it responsible for increased violence in Karachi. This statement annoyed the MQM.
The MQM also increased its pressure by giving a deadline of 10 days to the PPP to explain if the statement of Zulfiqar Mirza represented the official position of the PPP. They want the PPP to restrain Mirza from making such strident statements.
Though the MQM is unhappy with the PPP, it does not want the PPP government to collapse at this stage. However, it would continue to apply pressure on the PPP by distancing itself from some of the government policies, criticising the PPP policies in Karachi, and restricting the scope of cooperation with the PPP. The exit of the JUI-F has strengthened the MQM position to apply pressure on the PPP and secure more political and material dividends. If the pressure tactics do not work, the MQM can exercise the withdrawal option.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has already demanded mid-term elections and it is more critical of the PPP now than was the case three months ago. Though it would be happy if the federal government collapses, it does not want to initiate the move. It has, therefore, adopted a 'wait and see' policy, hoping that the PPP government would collapse because of its own policy blunders or due to the cracks in the coalition. The Pakistan Muslim LeagueQuaid (PML-Q) has acquired salience after the exit of the JUI-F and the mounting of pressure by the MQM. It has enough seats in the National Assembly to make itself attractive for the PPP if it engages in a search for new allies.
The PPP has several options available to cope with the present crisis. The PPP would like to win back the JUI-F. Maulana Fazlur Rehman may not soon return to the PPP fold at this stage. However, he is not expected to join any anti-PPP coalition in the near future. He will give more attention to religious issues like the Blasphemy Law to strengthen his position among the Islamists, which will, in turn, increase pressure on the PPP.
The PPP can mend its fences with the MQM by restraining Zulfiqar Mirza from periodic onslaughts on the MQM. Meanwhile, it can strengthen its relationship with independent members and smaller political parties.
The PPP can cultivate the PML-Q, especially if the MQM decides to quit the coalition. The PML-Q would be willing to join the PPP if the latter supports the former's bid to dislodge the PML-N government in Punjab. The PPP will go for this option if the MQM quits the partnership with the PPP and the PML-N embarks on dislodging the PPP government though a vote of no-confidence.