It was supposed to be an easy walk for Nawaz Sharif’s handpicked unknown. Sure enough, Mamnoon Hussain—who secured 432 votes to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s 77 from the Senate and the national and provincial assemblies—was elected the 12th president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on June 30. So predictable was Hussain’s success that just hours after his win, the news fell off the headlines on Pakistan’s cable channels.
Hussain’s victory was expected; its fallout was anything but. The following day, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim resigned as chief election commissioner and the Supreme Court served a contempt notice on PTI chief Imran Khan. Ebrahim and Khan, neither a fan of the other, were both displeased about the court’s decision to move up the presidential election by a week at the behest of the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). The court’s decision had already compelled the Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League, and the Awami National Party to boycott the election.
Prime Minister Sharif’s choice of 72-year-old Hussain, a noncontroversial businessman from Karachi, was intended to serve both as a palate cleanser after five years of Asif Ali Zardari as president (his term expires Sept. 9) and as a potential bridge to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the Karachi-based political party founded to champion the rights of Indian Muslims like Hussain who immigrated to Pakistan.
Instead, the presidential election has nudged opposition parties closer, opened the judiciary to accusations of partisanship and the government to charges of running roughshod over the opposition, pitted the popular Khan against the country’s chief justice, and it may even have caused some heartburn within the PMLN itself.
Ayaz Amir, a popular columnist for The News and former member of the National Assembly from PMLN, wasn’t too surprised by Sharif’s choice for president. “He is very unobtrusive,” Amir says of Hussain. “You would never notice him in a room, and I would not blame you.” After the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the president’s office has been rendered powerless. So it doesn’t matter who the president is, says Amir. “In a parliamentary system the president is not expected to perform any gymnastics. He’s just supposed to just be there, as a figurehead.”
“We had to pick someone from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or Sindh,” says PMLN’s Sen. Mushahid Ullah Khan, who has known the president-elect for three decades. “We also thought that there aren’t many Urdu-speaking people in government. Sindh was important because of Karachi’s law and order situation, too. All of this coupled with Mamnoon’s honesty and his educational background made him ideal.” Khan is also impressed by Hussain’s humility. “As governor, he’d tell the operator to go to bed and he would take all calls after 11 p.m. directly.”
Born on Dec. 24, 1940, in Agra, where his father and grandfather ran a successful shoemaking business, the president-elect’s family moved to Karachi soon after Partition. “My father was a strict disciplinarian,” he tells Newsweek. “He arranged this army of teachers to home-school me.” Hussain also spent two years at a madrassah, Darul Uloom Naeemia, but dropped out because he “did not like being called Mullah Sahib” by the children in his neighborhood. Hussain went on to a degree in commerce from the Government College of Commerce & Economics, and an M.B.A. from Karachi’s Institute of Business Administration.
Four years after his postgraduate degree, in 1969, Hussain became joint secretary of the then Muslim League in Karachi. Later, he set up his own small business, Huda Textile. Hussain got to know the man who would change his life, Sharif, in 1993, winning him over by mobilizing Karachi’s business community in protests against President Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s sacking of Sharif’s first government. In 1997, during Sharif’s second go in government, Hussain was named an adviser to the chief minister of Sindh. After this, he was elected unopposed as president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Many among Karachi’s business community are thrilled about Hussain’s election. “I strongly believe more businessmen should hold such positions,” says Mian Abrar Ahmad, a former KCCI president, “They have an advantage because they better understand the real problems that our country faces.” Ahmad adds that Hussain is “a docile man with an excellent reputation in the business community. He isn’t too social, but he’s a man of integrity.”
In June 1999, Sharif appointed Hussain as Sindh’s governor. He remained in office only a few months, until Oct. 12, when the Army ousted Sharif’s second government. Hussain spent a month in jail in 2001 for “disrupting public order” by speaking at a pro-Sharif gathering in Hyderabad.
It appears that Hussain has met his high noon of political achievement comfortably at the cost of other PMLN loyalists. In choosing Hussain, Sharif’s kitchen cabinet in Raiwind, Lahore, had to ignore its party leader in Sindh, former judge and chief minister Syed Ghous Ali Shah. It would be quite logical to assume that Shah would be nursing a gash from the party’s choice and the new political approach to Sindh that it entails.
Sharif plumped for Hussain over the heads of Sartaj Aziz and Iqbal Zafar Jhagra. Both hail from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and the former is easily the better of the two by reason of his intellectual stature. (Although why Aziz would abandon the vice-chancellorship of a prestigious university in Lahore for a Foreign Office job as the prime minister’s adviser, dangerously counterbalanced by ex-diplomat Tariq Fatemi as Sharif’s special assistant, may boggle some minds.)
Miffed that Sharif had preferred Rafiq Tarar, a bearded ex-judge of the Supreme Court, as his president over him after the 1997 elections, Aziz had many other governance-related criticisms of the PMLN in his book Between Dreams and Realities: Some Milestones in Pakistan’s History (Oxford University Press Pakistan, 2009). Needless to say, a toothless presidency under the 18th Amendment should equally be unattractive to him. The book could not have pleased Sharif as it found fault with his decision to sack Army chief Jehangir Karamat in 1998 and then passing over Ali Kuli Khan as the next chief. As for Jhagra, it might be difficult for Raiwind to pass him over while choosing a governor for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
‘Have you heard what some [PPP] politicians are saying on talk shows? It can easily fall under contempt of court.’
Choosing Mamnoon Hussain from Sindh and ignoring two candidates from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa should mean something in terms of political priorities.
Clearly, of the PMLN’s two rival parties—Khan’s PTI and Zardari’s PPP—the latter has been put in the crosshairs. Even though rightwing Khan should have looked more dangerous with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in his pocket, he was less of a political threat in the coming days because of the way PTI is struggling to find its feet in the Taliban-haunted province. Sindh, on the other hand, was ripe for a gradual plucking by Sharif’s narrowly Punjab-based party because of the city-rural divide presided over by two alienated parties, PPP and the MQM. Not to be ignored is the steadily mounting support for Khan in Karachi, which PTI says led to the murder of their leader Zahra Shahid allegedly at the hands of MQM’s target-killers. Thus, the PMLN could fancy killing two big birds—PPP and PTI—with one stone: an MQM still muscle-bound with immigrant support but humbled more than ever before by its London troubles and therefore least inclined to jib in the double harness in 2013. On June 30, the MQM voted “unconditionally” for Mamnoon Hussain.
Analysts say MQM saw the federal government as more of a bulwark against the “day of judgment” for its leader Altaf Hussain in the United Kingdom than Sindh, where the world at times sees it more as part of the problem than its democratic solution. (Zardari cleverly courted the MQM once again for a Sindh coalition after Scotland Yard got on to Altaf Hussain’s spoor, but without success.)
Sharif’s party may also have found ideologically repugnant his pre-election political move to isolate the PPP in its rural bailiwick by flirting with the likes of Mumtaz Bhutto’s Sindh National Front as well as with “nationalists” represented by the Qaumi Awami Tehreek of Ayaz Latif Palijo and the Sindh United Party of Jalal Mehmood Shah, both at times associated with the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement. Together with Bhutto, these parties have often verbalized about converting the Pakistani “federation” into a “confederation,” which is anathema to the PMLN support base in the Punjab.
Apart from the ideological allergy spread by the spore of Sindhi nationalism in Lahore, other news could have helped Sharif turn to an MQM made more malleable from its recent woes abroad. PPP may still be supreme in Sindh, but the media has noted the rising tide of the Sindhi middle class behind the nationalists at the PPP’s cost. They are seen to have become more assertive, even slightly violent, in the feudal hinterland. Is the PPP going into a big eclipse in the South after being virtually kicked out of the Punjab? The country noted also the ability of nationalist Palijo to beard the MQM more effectively in its lair in Karachi.
The Peace Principle
Mamnoon Hussain was preferred over Ghous Ali Shah, not so much because of the latter’s political lethargy, but because of the former’s inoffensive or even amicable interface with a troubled MQM. Sharif and Altaf Hussain have crossed hate-speech swords numerous times in the past, both often thrusting below the belt. (You can’t stop cable news channels from regurgitating old clips of the two engaged in this low jousting.) Shah was often the spearhead of Sharif’s venomous rhetoric against the MQM, which could have made him too tainted to compete with the overtures of the PPP to the MQM in the coming days and months.
If the Sharif government has to succeed in preventing the national economy from going belly-up, it must have Karachi—the city where a huge amount of the national wealth is created—on its right side. Shah has been ignored in the past and this time the poor electoral performance of the PMLN in Karachi can be laid at his door once again; therefore Mamnoon Hussain’s choice could not have lacerated his feelings too much. When the Sharifs exiled themselves to London after the 1999 coup, they simply forgot to take Shah along, who later joined them on his own only to suffer a financially tough interregnum there as a price for the honor of returning to Pakistan in their wake.
In Urdu, unprincipled political alliances are called muk muka; and when caught making malice-flecked deals, politicians are often seen walking away from the criticism by saying that there is no such thing as the final word in politics. Principles make us predictable on which our character is often seen to stand. But principles, not always arrived at immaculately, also make us inflexible in the face of options of survival. A less complimentary way of describing this trait is stubbornness, a quality that Sharif has manifested in the past during his two curtailed terms in power. This time he is less stubborn and readier to adopt strategies of survival in power. Mamnoon Hussain being elected president of Pakistan proves so.
With Adnan Siddiqi, Benazir Shah, and Rimmel Mohydin. From our Aug. 9 & 16, 2013, issue.