December Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

In a rare show of unity, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the two former prime ministers who have, for long, been bitterly opposed to each other, agreed to take a joint stand on whether to participate in the coming elections, giving a dramatic twist to Pakistan’s turbulent politics. With the emerging consensus on the prevailing unfair environment, there is a strong possibility now of a mass boycott by the opposition parties, thus derailing the entire election process.

With the closing of the opposition ranks, the situation is becoming more untenable for the now civilian president, Musharraf, who has lost much of his clout after doffing his army uniform. Most observers agree that his hold over power has become even more tenuous after his decision to quit the military, which had been his main power base. With major political forces arrayed against him, he will find his political survival even more difficult. He has failed to recoup his political standing, which has plummeted since March 9, when he tried to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Further, he lost whatever little credibility he had left when he imposed a state of emergency in the country on November 3.

Pakistan’s politics took a dramatic turn with the return home, from long periods in exile, of the two most powerful political leaders. The re-emergence of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif has completely changed the country’s political dynamics, presenting the most serious challenge to Musharraf’s efforts to hold on to power. The former general received a major setback when Ms Bhutto, who had returned home ending her eight- year-long self-exile under a deal, called off her negotiations on a possible power sharing-arrangement with him.

Till now Ms Bhutto has been reluctant to boycott the polls, contending that the field should not be left open for pro-Musharraf forces, despite an uneven playing field. But that situation could change with the growing allegations of large-scale pre-poll rigging. There are clear indications now that she might decide to join Sharif and other opposition groups and stay away from the polls.

cover-nawaz-sharif-dec07Nawaz Sharif, who finally succeeded in his second attempt to return to the country with the support of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, is likely to go for the boycott despite intense pressure from the candidates of his party to stay in the field. However, the former leader has been left with no other option after the Election Commission rejected his and his brother Shahbaz Sharif’s nomination papers on grounds of previous convictions.

Sharif was sentenced to a 21-year prison term on alleged hijacking charges by an anti-terrorism court in 2000 for not allowing a passenger aircraft carrying his then chief of army staff, Musharraf, to land in Pakistan.

The incident, which occurred on October 12, 1999, triggered a military coup that deposed Mr Sharif. The sentence was later revoked by the Pakistan government when the ousted prime minister was sent into exile to Saudi Arabia. Mr Sharif had described the conviction as being politically motivated.

Sharif’s disqualification did not come as a surprise, but the move has certainly strengthened the lobby that is advocating a boycott. Many observers believe the disqualification of top PML-N leaders is part of a pre-poll rigging plan. Sharif has already indicated that his party would not work under Musharraf even if it wins the elections.

“We believe that any government serving under Musharraf will be illegal and undemocratic,” Sharif declared after his return. This is a clear indicator that the political crisis cannot be resolved with Musharraf continuing in power. The present caretaker government is largely an extension of the previous PML-Q-led coalition government. The fact that the diverse opposition parties have been able to unite shows how isolated Musharraf stands today.

cover-musharraf-dec07Although Musharraf has promised to roll back the emergency rule and restore the constitution by December 16, the issue of reinstatement of the chief justice and other judges who refused to take a fresh oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) remains contentious. It is quite apparent that Musharraf’s emergency measures, which have been aptly described as his second coup, were solely meant to get rid of an assertive judiciary who he feared would not endorse his re-election while still in uniform. The objective was served when his handpicked judges validated his rule for another five-year term. But his extra-constitutional act has vanquished any hope of the country returning to democracy and the rule of law.

President Musharraf last month handed over the army command to his successor General Ashfaq Kayani, bringing to an end his 46-year-long military career. “I will no longer command… but my heart and my mind will always be with you,” he told his officers, trying to hold back his tears. He was certainly not happy to hang up his uniform, which he had often described as his second skin. It was largely pressure from the United States and other western countries that forced the general to step down as army chief. There were also signs of him losing the support of his western allies. The former general was seen as a key US ally for his support to the war on terror in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001.

Analysts maintain that the army would continue to back him as a bridge between the armed forces and the future civilian government. But the power could gravitate more towards General Kayani in the event of any political instability. The change of guard also signals the return of the troika rule that dominated the country’s politics in the 1990s.

The political role of the military in the country’s power structure has already been formalised by Musharraf through the formation of the National Security Council. The Council includes the chiefs of the three services: the army, the navy and the air force. This will make General Kayani an important member of the power structure.

The chain-smoking 56-year-old General Kayani is Pakistan’s 14th Chief of Army Staff. A man of few words, he is reputed to be a hard-working officer who climbed rapidly through the military ranks. In 2004, he was appointed to head the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which spearheads the hunt for Al-Qaeda militants as well as providing internal security. Under General Kayani, the spy agency, which worked closely with American and British intelligence services, achieved some important successes in combating Al-Qaeda and home-grown Islamic militants.

Last month, Kayani was appointed as Vice-Chief of Army Staff, clearing the way for him to succeed General (retd.) Musharraf, who had occupied the post for over nine years. The US-trained General Kayani is known for his pro-western views and is regarded as a tough professional. His appointment comes at a time when the country is faced with a deepening political crisis and a rise in Islamic militancy in the north. There is also growing US pressure to do more to combat Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters operating from the lawless tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

Kayani’s first task would be to lift the army’s morale, which has plummeted after the recent setbacks it has suffered in the ongoing campaign against Islamic militants in the borderlands. Hundreds of troops were recently taken prisoners by rebels in the troubled Waziristan region and later freed in return for the release of key militant leaders. Hundreds of soldiers have been killed by suicide bombers who have relentlessly attacked army convoys, camps and mess halls.

Thousands of soldiers are locked in a fierce battle with Islamic militants who seized control of a vast area of Swat in the NWFP, which has become a new frontline in Pakistan’s war against Islamic extremism.

General Kayani is not known for his political ambition and had kept a low profile in domestic politics until last month, when he was involved in negotiations with Benazir Bhutto on a power-sharing deal with President Musharraf. Defence analysts believe that the general is likely to lower the political profile of the army, which has come under intense criticism at home because of President Musharraf’s recent domestic policies. However, the top post in the army will remain a key position in Pakistan, where the army has ruled for more than half of the country’s 60-year history.

The political confrontation, intensified by Musharraf’s authoritarianism, could push the country towards complete anarchy. There is a slim chance of elections being held in the present environment. The boycott by major political parties would make the credibility of elections questionable. The major fear is that growing political unrest could provide a conducive ground for the military to intervene.

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.