March Issue 2008
Down, But Not Out
There is no sign yet of an embattled President Musharraf going gently into the night despite the rout of his supporters, the PML-Q, in the national elections. The camp office in Rawalpindi has come alive, once again, with the president’s aides hoping to salvage the situation by resorting to the old trick of dividing their opponents. The strains in the newly-formed alliance between the PPP and the PML-N have given his aides some cause for optimism. The confidence was apparent from the latest statement of his spokesman, Major-General Rashid Qureshi, that the president would not step down and will complete his five-year term. “The game is not over yet,” says one source close to the government.
The outcome of the elections, with Musharraf’s nemesis Nawaz Sharif emerging as a major power player, came as a shock to the president and has introduced completely new political dynamics. Even on polling day, when the trend had become apparent, Musharraf remained in a state of denial and, perhaps, he has still not fully accepted the changing realities. However, he maintains that he has accepted the people’s mandate and is prepared to work with the new government. But there is no sign of him taking a back seat and allowing the system to work smoothly.
Can Musharraf co-exist with the elected parliament, dominated by his opponents who refuse to accept the legitimacy of his re-election? The political wheeling and dealing may delay his exit, but cannot change the reality on the ground. He remains the main source of political instability. The major question is whether the system can work smoothly with a president, whose legitimacy is questionable, at the helm.
What worried Musharraf most was the agreement between the PPP and the PML-N to form a coalition government. The landmark accord between Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif was reached soon after their parties triumphed in the elections. The PPP leadership believed that a national unity government was necessary to deal with the serious economic crisis and worsening law and order situation faced by the country. Zardari, who has taken over the command of the party after the death of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, is trying to forge a consensus among all the main political forces in the country. But it is the PML-N which is setting the agenda. The party is poised to form the government in the Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province, which gives it tremendous political clout.
The focus has shifted from forming the government to other important issues on which the two sides have divergent views. Not only do the two sides have differing opinions on some key issues, but their track records provide few reasons for optimism.
A major point of difference is on whether to form a government with Musharraf staying on as president. The PPP has taken a more pragmatic position on the issue. Zardari, in an interview with Newsline, admitted that his coalition will be unable to impeach the president and that he would, instead, seek a working relationship with the embattled leader.
“The ground reality is that we do not have a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, that would be required for successful impeachment,” said Zardari. His comments are among the most conciliatory to date from a top leader of the coalition, regarding its intended approach to Musharraf. “We want to unify the country, which is facing some very serious challenges,” he remarked. “We have to establish democracy and for that we need unity and not confrontation.”
But Sharif continues to insist that the president be removed from office before he joins any government, a stance that analysts say will be tough to enforce in the present circumstances and could hinder the success of the coalition. ” We will not accept the illegal and unconstitutional rule of Mr Musharraf,” Sharif said. The ANP has kept its position on the president’s removal ambiguous. However, there is complete agreement on curtailing the powers of the president to dismiss the elected government and the National Assembly.
The restoration of the judges sacked by Musharraf under a state of emergency is another issue on which the two major partners in the coalition hold divergent views. The PML-N demands that the sacked judges be restored immediately through an administrative order. But the issue is not a priority with the PPP. In fact, the PPP is opposed to the restoration of deposed chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who, it believes, had overstretched his authority.
The PPP is also unhappy over Chaudhry’s action on the National Reconciliation Ordinance, which ended the corruption cases against Benazir Bhutto and Zardari. “The PML-N demand is unrealistic,” says a PPP leader. There are also sharp differences within the legal community on whether the judges’ restoration can be achieved through an administrative order, or whether it requires an amendment in the constitution, which can only be done with a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
The PPP leaders contend that the restoration of judges may not solve the issue of the independence of the judiciary. In fact, it could pose a major problem for the incoming government. However, the demand for restoration of the judges helped propel Sharif’s party to a surprisingly strong showing in the election, so he can ill-afford to be seen as backing down now. Many observers say that the odds against a lasting political alliance are overwhelming. They say there is even less chance that the one-time rivals can put aside their differences and turn a new leaf in the nation’s turbulent political history. This intransigence can only work in Musharraf’s favour.
Continuing American support has been crucial for Musharraf’s survival. The Bush administration is concerned that the ouster of its key ally would destabilise Pakistan and adversely affect its war on terror. There is a deep suspicion in Washington that a PPP-PML-N coalition government may not serve its interest in the same way as Musharraf did. PPP leaders admit that they are under intense US pressure to work with Musharraf.
The increasingly confrontational stance adopted by Nawaz Sharif and the prospect of political instability has, once again, rallied the army behind its former chief. A statement issued after the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani’s meeting with the president, warning extremist elements against trying to destabilise the country, is seen by many observers as tacit support for the embattled leader. It indicates a change from the army’s earlier stance of taking a back seat. There is growing apprehension that the removal of Musharraf at this point could plunge the country into chaos.
More than ever, the absence of Benazir Bhutto is being felt at this stage. Despite winning the most seats in the National Assembly, the PPP lacks a leadership which could lead the country at this critical juncture. The PPP appears rudderless as it tries to form a government. It is taking a long time to name a new prime minister. Amin Fahim, who earlier seemed certain to be nominated for the coveted job, fell out of favour after he met Musharraf without the knowledge of the party leaders. It is most likely that the PPP could pick somebody from the Punjab for the post. Zardari said the party would name the candidate when he is invited to form the government.
Although he has publicly denied any intention of becoming prime minister, the possibility of Zardari taking over a few months later remains. “It is more important to guide the government and the party,” he told Newsline. But a close aide said one could not rule out the possibility. Zardari indicated that he might run for a parliamentary seat in the by-elections from Ms Bhutto’s constituency in Larkana. “I will contest the elections if the party decides they want me to,” he said.
It is certainly not going to be smooth sailing for the new dispensation. One of the first tasks before the new government, expected to be installed by mid-March, will be determining how to fight Islamic extremists, who have expanded their reach beyond the northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan. The country has been hit by dozens of suicide bombings blamed on Muslim militants in recent months, that have left hundreds dead. Along with the worsening economic situation, this is going to be the biggest challenge for the democratically-elected government. The future of democracy would also depend on the relations between the army and the new civilian dispensation. With the prospect of a stand-off between the new parliament and an ever-assertive president, the situation does not bode well for democracy.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.