Is a Better Government Possible in Pakistan?

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty

Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif

Although President Barack Obama on Wednesday pledged unwavering backing for Pakistan's government in its battle with extremists, his Administration has recognized the potentially crippling political weakness of President Asif Ali Zardari. That's why Washington has been quietly urging the leader of the opposition, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to join his arch-rival Zardari in a unity government to lead the fight against Islamist militancy. The shift is hardly surprising given Zardari's perilously low approval ratings and Sharif's reemergence as Pakistan's most popular politician — but it caps a remarkable comeback for a man left for dead politically when he was ousted from power in General Pervez Musharraf's 1999 coup.

The coup forced the twice former Prime Minister into exile in London, as his party's parliamentary representation plummeted from a two-thirds majority to a mere 16 seats. Even when the U.S. brokered a deal with Musharraf to allow the return of Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Zardari, Sharif was left to stew in exile, mistrusted by Washington as too close to the Islamists. Eventually, he returned without a deal, his party finishing second to Zardari's in the election that ousted Musharraf — although the unity government they formed soon broke up in a fierce power struggle. But as Zardari's political fortunes have plummeted amid Pakistan's roiling security and economic crises, Sharif has emerged as an improbable savior. In the days before Zardari's Washington visit, Pakistan's media was filled with reports about U.S. efforts to persuade him and Nawaz Sharif to form a united front against the Taliban.

With Pakistan now facing multiple crises, "the perception is that Mr. Zardari on his own cannot carry the country," says Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times newspaper. Analysts believe the military will only launch a concerted offensive to roll back recent Taliban gains if such a campaign has broad-based public support. That fact, together with the challenge of cooling ethnic tensions in Karachi, addressing the separatist challenge in the impoverished province of Baluchistan, and rescuing the basket-case economy whose decline fuels social tension, make a strong case for a unity government. Sharif's popularity could potentially generate support for a campaign against militancy, and he has lately spoken out strongly against the Taliban's advances. What's more, both leaders share a desire for peace with India, against which the bulk of Pakistan's military is focused.

The Bush Administration had seen Sharif's links to Pakistan's Islamist right as a reason to keep him at arm's length. Critics pointed out that Sharif, while serving as Prime Minister, had attempted to anoint himself "Commander of the Faithful," and to introduce Shari'a law. (The moves were voted down by Pakistan's senate.) Yet Sharif's aides deny that he has sympathies with fundamentalism, and Washington now appears to prefer to urge Sharif to use any influence he may have among the country's Islamists.

The effort to broker a unity government has been joined by the British and the Saudis (who have traditionally wielded considerable influence in Islamabad), privately and publicly encouraging key Sharif lieutenants to join forces with Zardari. But thus far, both sides appear to view the prospect of unity through the prism of their traditional rivalry. And some political observers are skeptical of the plan. "This is going to be a very difficult political exercise," says Riaz Khokhar, a retired career diplomat who served as Pakistan's ambassador to Washington during Sharif's last government. "It's like mixing oil and water. Between these two big leaders, Sharif and Zardari, the level of mistrust is so high. Ideologically, they are also on different wavelengths. After all they were in the cabinet together last year, and they had serious differences of opinion."

The divisions that ended the unity government formed after the 2008 election — over Zardari backtracking on promises to reinstate judges sacked by Musharraf — were taken to the streets last February, with a Sharif-backed protest movement forcing Zardari to back down. Despite a more conciliatory tone from Sharif, wounds from that clash are yet to heal.

"It is an open secret that many friends of Pakistan want a unity government," says Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party. "They realize that our party has popular support. But the point is that we have already made it very clear that we have full support for the government on all national issues." Iqbal claims that Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has not "shown any seriousness" in implementing constitutional reforms agreed between the two parties. Under those proposals, Pakistan's political system would revert to its pre-Musharraf model, with the presidency being reduced to a largely ceremonial role, while the government would be led by the Prime Minister.

According to a senior leader of his party, Sharif is also weighing tactical considerations. "If the PPP government is discredited in the public's eyes, then our party is there as an alternative," he says. "But if we join the government, and the whole government becomes discredited, who will be the alternative? Power could slip to the extremists in that case. For democracy in this country it is also important that there is a strong opposition. Besides, as a junior coalition partner, we cannot set the agenda."

The Zardari camp appears divided on power sharing. "I think it is a good idea for Nawaz to come into the government and share the burden," says a senior government official, but adds that the Sharif camp would see little benefit in joining the government at this moment rather than waiting for the next election. An aide to Zardari tersely dismissed the notion of Sharif's joining the government as "pressure tactics" from Washington, while another senior government official accused the U.S. of trying to "micro-manage" Pakistani politics along the lines of South Vietnam.

The last time Washington sought to broaden the support base of a beleaguered ally in Islamabad — when it brokered an agreement to bring Bhutto back to shore up Musharraf — Washington was widely criticized for seeking to save a reviled military dictator. Many also criticized foreign intervention in Pakistan's politics. And similar criticism has greeted the Sharif proposal. "Eventually, the solutions will have to come from within Pakistan," says Khokhar, the retired diplomat. "Anything manufactured in Washington, London or Riyadh will only have limited success."

Still, there is a growing feeling that Pakistan now faces a crisis too profound to be fixed by a mere realignment of the existing political establishment. "What is needed is better governance," says a veteran politician, "not a better-looking government."