July issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

President Musharraf appeared visibly jittery at the farewell dinner for Zafarullah Khan Jamali as he tried to defend Shaukat Aziz’s nomination as the country’s new prime minister. “When India can have a prime minister from the upper house why can’t we have a senator for the post,” he was reported as saying. He dismissed the widespread criticism against the choice of a former international consumer banker for the coveted job as unfounded and heaped huge praise on Jamali that left the audience wondering why then was such a “capable man” sacked. Jamali sounded more sarcastic in his comment: “We have to accept the President’s choice whether it is Doctor Aziz or General Aziz.”

The remark was indicative of how a so-called parliamentary democracy functions in this country. The 150 MNAs who had gathered at the Muslim League headquarters in Islamabad after Jamali’s resignation had scant idea of what was happening in Rawalpindi where PML president, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, and his talented cousin and chief minister of the Punjab, Pervez Elahi, were huddled in a meeting with the President and his close aides. The lawmakers restlessly waited for the outcome of the negotiations at the Presidency. They were there not to elect a new parliamentary party leader, but to rubber stamp the President’s verdict. There was widespread speculation that the dice had already been thrown in favour of the commerce minister, Humayun Akhtar. The multi-millionaire son of a former ISI chief was anyway the first choice of the generals after the October 2002 elections. After being out manoeuvered previously by the Chaudhrys of Gujarat who helped install the portly chieftain from Balochistan in the top post, Humayun was confident that his moment of glory had finally arrived. He had already prepared a list of his team in consultation with the President’s aides.

However, both Humayun, as well the other MNAs at the PML House got a rude shock when Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain announced the unprecedented decision to nominate two prime ministers. The ailing PML leader would take over the job for the interim, while the prime minister-designate, Shaukat Aziz acquired a National Assembly seat. “We have no choice but to rubber stamp the President’s choice,” muttered a disgruntled member. His voice was drowned out in the cacophony of hearty cheers from others applauding the “wisdom of the great leader.”

Nothing could have been more farcical than the way the military President imposed his verdict. It was a throwback to the politics of the 1950s when prime ministers were changed overnight through palace intrigues. But, the nomination of two prime ministers is a first even in Pakistan’s chequered political history. The move has raised serious questions about the future of the fragile democratic process. It is also seen as a reassertion of the military’s authority in the country’s politics.

Shaukat Aziz. Photograph: AFP

Shaukat Aziz. Photograph: AFP

Many observers see the latest development as a symbol of no-confidence by Musharraf towards his own handcrafted political system. Shaukat Aziz’s nomination indicates that Musharraf cannot live with any of 190 members of the ruling coalition in the National Assembly and has to rely on a technocrat. The move has obviously not gone down well, even with many of Musharraf’s own loyalists, who have grudgingly accepted his arbitrary decision. “Aziz is an outsider who is being undemocratically imposed on us,” says a disgruntled MNA. Musharraf defended his action claiming the change would bring political stability to the country. “The appointment of a technocrat will bring good governance,” he declared.

Jamali’s removal had been on the cards for more than 10 months with Musharraf growing increasingly uncomfortable with his “incompetence” and “poor governance.” Despite his unassuming demeanour, Jamali had also provoked the General’s displeasure for not defending his policies in parliament. His pliant nature, notwithstanding, Jamali never supported Musharraf’s intentions of not fulfilling his commitment to shed his uniform by the end of the year. Jamali’s problems were exacerbated further by his growing differences with Chaudhry Shujaat and other party leaders, some of whom publicly demanded his removal. The ultimate humiliation came early this year when his move to become the secretary-general of the newly united Muslim League was blocked. It became brutally apparent that the powerful establishment had lost patience with their hand-picked man. With almost no support base of his own in the party, Jamali could do little to assert his authority.

Jamali was almost removed in September last year, but Musharraf postponed the decision largely because of a lack of consensus on his replacement. Shaukat Aziz and Humayun Akhtar were the leading contenders for the job at that point. Shaukat was ruled out because of not being an MNA, and Humayun’s name was blocked by Chaudhry Shujaat, who did not want a Punjabi prime minister who might have undermined his family’s control over the province. Though Chaudhry also pushed forward the name of Pervez Elahi for the job, it was not accepted by the military establishment who obviously did not want all power to be accumulated within one family. Other political factors, such as the delay in the ratification of the LFO by parliament, also helped Jamali to survive for few more months.

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. Photograph: AFP

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. Photograph: AFP

Jamali’s fate was sealed by April this year as his differences with the PML leadership became irreconcilable. The hunt for a new prime minister was on again. Humayun emerged as the military’s sole choice. The stage for the change was set and the National Assembly was hurriedly summoned on May 30. On June 5, Shujaat was supposed to get Jamali to sign his resignation letter, while Humayun was all set to take over the coveted job. But at the last moment Shujaat argued that the change should be postponed until the budget debate was over. According to some insiders, the main purpose of the delay was aimed at blocking Humayun’s candidature. For the next few weeks Shujaat and Pervez Elahi mobilised opinion against Humayun in the ruling coalition, contending that his nomination would divide the party.

Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive, was appointed finance minister after Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in October 1999. He represents the modern and progressive face of the military-led government and many regard him as the architect behind Pakistan’s impressive economic recovery. However, his installation as prime minister may still take weeks, since he needs to win a National Assembly seat. Some analysts contend that a few weeks is far too long in the volatile world of Pakistani politics. “Two months are too long in Pakistan’s politics. Who knows what will happen by then,” says a Muslim League MNA.

Shaukat’s appointment has also evoked intense criticism from the Islamic groups who accuse him of being an “American stooge.” “He will serve the interests of America,” said Maulana Fazlur Rehman. The choice of a technocrat as a prime minister serves Musharraf’s purpose of strengthening his control over the government. Shaukat, who does not have any political base of his own, will not present any challenge to Musharraf and will have to rely totally on the military for his own survival in power. The nomination of a non-politician assumes a greater significance as Musharraf has once again indicated that he might not keep his pledge to take off his uniform by the end of the year.

“People want me to stay in uniform,” Musharraf said in a recent statement. The appointment of a technocrat prime minister will not threaten his continuation as army chief as well as president. Many political observers, however, believe that Shaukat’s appointment may not achieve all that Musharraf is hoping for. Never having run for office, Shaukat has few allies in parliament, whose members have been feeling increasingly alienated by the President’s autocratic style.

Musharraf needs a strong political figure to mobilise public support and fight his political battles in parliament. A technocrat prime minister can obviously not fulfill that requirement. ” Shaukat will be good for the economy, but bad for politics,” said a political analyst. But while Manmohan Singh, who was elected by his own party, is viewed by many as the right man for India, Musharraf’s decision does not bode well for the country’s fragile democratic process.

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