May Issue 2008
Can the Coalition Survive?
The fate of the fragile coalition hangs in the balance as the deadlock over the restoration of the deposed judges persists. The growing strain between the PPP and the PML-N has raised serious doubts about the tenuous partnership surviving for long.
The prospect of the alliance falling apart has given the presidential camp a fresh cause for optimism. A new political alignment could emerge in case the PML-N pulls out of the government.
Coalition governments are not easy to work anywhere, but the task is even more difficult in Pakistan where democratic traditions have never been strong. It was an aberration when once bitter enemies, the PPP and the PML-N, formed a grand alliance. It gave hope for the future of democracy and political stability. But it was not to be. There has not been a consensus even on fundamental issues, which is necessary to bind the diverse political forces together.
Differences persist on the restoration of deposed judges, as well as on the future of President Musharraf. Although Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, after marathon sessions in Dubai, apparently reached yet another agreement, there is little hope of meeting the May 12 deadline for the reinstatement of judges. There are some basic differences on the issue between them which are not likely to be resolved. It is apparent that the PPP feels threatened by the return of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as chief justice and will not accept his unconditional restoration. The proposal for retaining all the judges appointed by President Musharraf and limiting the tenure of the chief justice to four years, are all part of an effort to undermine the judiciary’s powers. Although Sharif has agreed to the PPP’s package, there is still little hope of its being implemented by May 12. The PPP leaders say they did not commit to any such deadline, putting Nawaz Sharif in a bind.
The PPP insists it is committed to restoring the deposed judges through a judicial reforms package that could prevent abuses by top judges, which had occurred in the past. Analysts say Mr Zardari is also worried that, if restored, the judges could undo an amnesty deal that cleared him of corruption charges. Mr Sharif, on the other hand, describes the reinstatement of the judges as being necessary for the country’s return to full democracy.
The PML-N has threatened to pull out its ministers from the federal cabinet if the judges’ issue drags on, but insists it will continue to support the government. The collapse of the fractured partnership could lead to a regrouping of political forces and push the PPP to align with supporters of President Musharraf, providing reprieve to the embattled leader.
The PPP sent a clear warning to the PML-N when it entered into an alliance with the MQM, the staunchest pro-Musharraf group. The MQM has joined the Sindh government and is expected to be included in the centre as well.
The dispute between the PPP and the PML-N over the judges’ restoration is directly linked with their diverse positions on relations with President Musharraf. While the PML-N has called for Musharraf’s impeachment, the PPP has been more accommodating by maintaining a working relationship with the presidency. A US-backed power-sharing deal between Ms Bhutto and Musharraf enabled her to return to Pakistan last year and backchannel negotiations between the two sides were never discontinued.
President Musharraf and his aides have been holding clandestine talks with the PPP leaders in an effort to secure his position as president in return for the diminution of his power. Reports suggest that the embattled leader will accept the restoration of judges removed by him during his emergency rule last year, provided the judges appointed by him are also retained.
Musharraf is also willing to agree to a constitutional change that would restrict the president’s power to dismiss parliament, the aide said. He isn’t, however, prepared to relinquish his power to appoint the chiefs of the armed forces. This possible agreement is being hashed out in talks between presidential aides and PPP officials.
The current talks involve Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, head of the ISI, and a close presidential aide, Tariq Aziz. The two emissaries have been in regular contact with top PPP leaders, including Asif Ali Zardari. An agreement would legitimise Musharraf’s present term in office. But the talks remain tentative.
External factors are also playing a huge role in shaping the Pakistani political landscape. The Bush administration continues to support Musharraf, since it still believes that he is the best bet for the US, as its so-called war on terror goes badly. There is growing concern in Washington on whether the present coalition government can keep Pakistan’s commitment to fight the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants in the lawless tribal region.
There is growing uneasiness in Washington over the government’s decision to start peace negotiations with the tribal militants led by Baitullah Mehsud. Pakistani government and military officials have confirmed that negotiations were being held with the Mehsud tribesmen. The region is described by Pakistani and American intelligence agencies as the main centre of Al-Qaeda activities in Pakistan.
In the past, the US had opposed Pakistan’s peace deals with pro-Taliban militants because they had allowed the Al-Qaeda to regroup in the region and to step up attacks against NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. Pakistan decided to start fresh talks with the militants after its troops received a series of setbacks and the militants started targeting Pakistani military personnel and installations in Pakistani cities.
The government says it will pursue a multi-pronged strategy to combat terrorism, since the previous strategy centred on military assaults failed to produce the desired results. Some analysts predict that the deal could bring peace to Pakistan in the short term, but it may not last for long.
The government insists that it is willing to talk to those who abandon violence and lay down their arms. Pakistani authorities have freed Sufi Mohammed, who was serving a six-year jail term for sending thousands of Pakistani militants to Afghanistan during the US-led invasion. But the talks hit a snag after the government refused to pull out troops from the troubled areas. The development cast a huge shadow over Pakistani politics. As the coalition government totters, the US support for Musharraf and the military increases.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.