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A bit of brinkmanship

PM Gilani should have threatened fresh Pakistani elections

Written by Ejaz Haider |
January 10, 2011 3:23:50 am

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has managed to pull the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement back in the fold. But the MQM has decided,sharply,to not join the cabinet. Not unexpected this development,since the MQM was playing for maximum gains and used the threat that leaves something to chance. Gilani has blinked — and while he has got his majority back,by kowtowing to the MQM he has further weakened himself.

Coalition politics requires making compromises. But compromise is not spelled capitulation and when a government begins to conflate the two,its days are numbered.

MQM’s walking out of the cabinet and,later,walking over to the opposition benches had deprived the government of its slim majority. The MQM played its hand and it was Gilani’s turn to play his,a bold one rather than acting poltroonishly and running after the MQM on the one hand and the Nawaz League and the PMLQ on the other.

Finding Gilani in difficulty and seeing him running around,the PMLN and the PMLQ upped the ante. Mian Nawaz Sharif presented his 9-point charter of demands that ended with the predictable “failing which”,and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain said he was no simpleton that could be tricked by the PPP into supporting their government. Even the PMLQ jetsam,the breakaway faction,began squeaking and asking Sharif to move a no-confidence resolution which they would support.

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It remains to be seen what the price Gilani has had to pay. One MQM demand has been for the PPP to help it (MQM) put down the Awami National Party in Karachi. A tough proposition because the ANP has stood by the PPP at the Centre and in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Other MQM demands too are not easy to meet and,if met,would put the MQM in the driver’s seat in Sindh and,by extension,at the Centre.

Already,Gilani’s government has beaten a hasty retreat on petrol prices after the opposition parties pressured it. The same has happened to the reformed general sales tax which is now in limbo. It is clear that no political actor,and that includes the MQM,is prepared to help Gilani take the tough economic decisions because all are playing politics.

So,the question is,what’s the point of continuing in government if Gilani is going to allow himself to be dragged around like a head-lugged bear? Short answer: no point.

He could have done it differently and responded with his own brinkmanship. That would have meant signalling to other actors that all share the risk. Of course it would have depended on reading other players’ motivation but it should have been clear that none really wanted new elections at this point. But Gilani,instead of manipulating risk through compellence,gave into MQM’s compellence strategy.

Brinkmanship is about shared risk,and sharing risk means no player wants the situation to end up in disaster. A chess game,as Thomas Schelling argued,“can end in win,lose,or draw” and suggests “adding a fourth outcome called ‘disaster’.” He then asks,“What does this new rule do to the way a game is played?”

“If a game is played well,and both players play for the best score they can get,we can state two observations. First,a game will never end in disaster. It could only terminate in disaster if one of the players made a deliberate move that he knew would cause disaster,and he would not. Second,the possibility of disaster will be reflected in the players’ tactics… [The ability to block or to deter certain moves of the adversary will be an important part of the game; the threat of disaster will be effective,so effective that the disaster never occurs.”

Instead of pleading with leaders of N and Q to not let his government fall,or giving in to the MQM,Gilani could have signalled to other actors that he was prepared to step down — that he would inform President Asif Zardari that he has lost the majority in parliament and the president could invite the opposition to form the government. And if the opposition couldn’t do that,then either it would have had to repose a vote of confidence in Gilani’s government or Gilani could have advised the president to dissolve the assembly — so the jig was up for all.

It is a counterfactual; but playing the game thus Gilani would have forced the other actors to decide whether they wanted to fall with him or relent to save the current configuration. Some might argue that other actors could have decided to opt for elections. Perhaps. In that case I will argue that the PPP government needs to calculate,even at this stage when the MQM has returned to the coalition,if the time has come to think of early elections. There is no point in presiding over a set-up whose strings are pulled by intransigent coalition partners.

The writer is Contributing Editor,‘The Friday Times’,Lahore

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