Much is happening in Pakistan. Self-exiled Pervez Musharraf is threatening to join politics back home, Asif Zardari says he isn't under the army's pressure to quit, Nawaz Sharif's struggling to hold his own and Imran Khan going great guns in his quest for power.
Amid such political ferment and reports that terror gangs were regrouping—after Pakistan's retaliatory ban on US drones post an American air-strike that left 24 soldiers dead —the world's focus in 2012 will be on the Af-Pak region. Can democracy survive a turbulent civil-military relationship? Scheduled in 2013, will elections happen at all or be brought forward? Who shall the electorate mandate in an increasingly crowded race—the Memogate-hit PPP, the PML (Nawaz) or a third entity or political front led by Imran's Tehreek-e-Insaaf?
Imponderables these, together with the question whether Zardari's Presidency will last its term? Old timers who saw him in a TV interview this weekend could make out he wasn't in the best of health. And what's true of him is largely true of his party. "He has done to the PPP what dictators such as Zia or Musharraf couldn't," said Afzal Khan, a noted Pakistani commentator. The PPP's main bet in the polls wouldn't as much be the Bhutto magic as the World Bank-funded Income Support Programme named after Benazir. The scheme that reaches Rs 1,000 per month to disadvantaged sections helped the party win elections in PoK despite a pathetic governance record in Islamabad.
In popular perception, Imran's ahead of other contenders, the PPP hamstrung by anti-incumbency, Zardari's failing health and image and his son and heir apparent Bilawal Bhutto's absenteeism since the February 2008 polls. The party remains nevertheless a major claimant to Left-wing political space even as Sharif slugs it out with Imran to retain the political Right.
Imran's grass-roots support is tangible. But he lacks the party organisation Nawaz possesses to translate that into votes. "Early polls don't suit the former cricketer," said Afzal Khan. "He needs time to build his party…."
Afzal Khan did not rule out the possibility of Imran forging an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami whose cadres traditionally overlapped that of the PML. Certain leading lights of the Nawaz League, notably the widely respected Javed Hashmi who suffered imprisonment during Musharraf's rule, have hitched on to the Tehreek bandwagon. Former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri has crossed over from PML's pro-military Quaid faction now on the PPP's side.
Imran's vaulting popularity in Nawaz's pocket borough Lahore has prompted the PML chief to step up mass contact across the country. Who wins this turf war would be the high point of elections regardless of when they are held.
"The battle will be triangular with Musharraf figuring nowhere," predicted a Karachi-based analyst. "He's flush with money, not people's support…."
His advice to Imran: stop playing the captain, be a teams-person as there isn't another way of building a party.
If only politics were cricket!