Najam Sethi's editorial in this week's Friday Times titled "Transition to Functional Democracy" (behind a firewall) claims that a Musharraf/BB deal has been all but concluded. The basic terms of the deal, according to Sethi, stipulate that Musharraf will be re-elected by the present assemblies in uniform with PPP's consent in return for free and fair elections, an agreement to take the uniform off in 6-12 months and some other crumbs for Bhutto. Remarkably, he then goes on to argue that this "Mother of all deals" makes sense and is good for the country.
If he is factually correct about the specifics of the "Mother of all deals" (it still seems speculative punditry to me), then his analysis is naive in the extreme. It increasingly seems to me that Sethi has become so caught up in being an influential insider with a privileged view of the daily "jor tor" of power politics that he has lost his analytical moorings.
One key flaw in his reasoning is his completely static analysis of the "deal" in which a few key players (Musharraf, Bhutto, Fazl-ur-Rehman) will redraw the political map amongst themselves and everything else will fall in line. Sethi displays no awareness that the arrangement he outlines would be deeply unstable and will have resolved few of the fundamental contradictions at the heart of Pakistan's current crisis of governance. The deal will not begin to resolve the issues of military-civilian power balance nor the current lopsided dynamic of power between the Presidency and the Parliament. After the elections, the countdown to Musharraf's "uniform doffing date" will start immediately with all the attendant speculation and uncertainties that were experienced when he made this "promise" the last time around. The nation will once again be witness to endless maneuvering and horse trading between Mush and the parliament to demarcate boundaries of power with the military remaining at the center of the controversy. Meanwhile all the problems and complexities of actual governance will remain neglected.
The deal is also likely to alter the political landscape in other unexpected ways: PML-Q and PPP could experience significant dissension from within and PPP will likely lose popular support, particularly in Punjab, for bailing out a weakened Musharraf. The parties cut out of the power equation unceremoniously by PPP (i.e. PML-N, JI, PTI) will continue their campaign against the unpopular uniformed President with the added grievance of the PPP "betrayal". After saving Musharraf again, Fazl-ur-Rehman will revert back to form excoriating the secular Musharraf and his allies to please his Taliban constituency during and after the elections. The end result of this deal will almost certainly be to weaken moderate forces as they will be viewed as having compromised on basic principles for personal gain. The amalgam of anti-Musharraf, anti-PPP right (with PML-N and PTI pushed into this grouping) will gain in stature to the long term detriment of the Pakistani polity.
Reading Sethi you would think that the deal is a panacea for Pakistan's ills. It will do nothing but prolong the agony of the last couple of dysfunctional years. The need is for Musharraf to doff his uniform and hold free and fair elections. After he takes these steps if certain political parties, like PPP, want to elect him a civilian President there will be fewer objections to it. But at least getting Musharraf to abide by some basic rules right away will help begin a rational process by which the balance of institutional powers could be restored back to the original constitutional intentions. This route is also more likely to avoid a dangerous split between PPP and PML-N. To tackle Pakistan's complex domestic and national issues it is imperative that the large mainstream parties develop a working relationship with some basic trust in each other.
It is my hope that Sethi's view is not the prevailing wisdom in Pakistan's elite circles and that the PPP leadership displays greater political foresight. Unfortunately, the recent events and statements emanating from BB do not leave anybody optimistic. Another opportunity to right the ship of state seems likely to be squandered.