July Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

The President’s camp office in the garrison city of Rawalpindi is no longer the country’s main power centre or the hub of major political activities, but it continues to remain the target of rival politicians who want to push the embattled President Pervez Musharraf out of office.

As a vast array of opponents — from religious hardliners to the born-again democrats like Nawaz Sharif — are baying for Musharraf’s blood, perhaps for the first time in his political career, the former army chief is on his backfoot and lying low.

Yes, a steady flow of visitors, including politicians belonging to the former ruling coalition, select journalists and friends in the armed forces do visit the camp office for formal and informal meetings with the president, but Musharraf is no longer on the offensive. Whether this defensive posture is a well-thought out strategy or an outcome of limited options available to the president — is presently difficult to gauge, given the murky waters of Pakistani politics.

Rejecting the conspiracy theories that the president was working to create a rift in the ruling coalition, sources close to Musharraf say that he only wants to fulfil his constitutional role as the president and advise and guide the elected government as and when required.

Is Musharraf in a position to spring any surprises on his opponents and manage to stay afloat in the coming months? This is a million-dollar question both, for his detractors and admirers. In the present circumstances, the country is all set to remain politically polarised and in the grip of uncertainty in the months ahead as anti-Musharraf forces prepare a final push to oust him. According to the constitution, signatures of 50% of the parliament members are required to move an impeachment motion against President Musharraf, while a two-thirds majority is needed both, in the National Assembly and the Senate to get it passed.

The PPP, which is being accused by staunch anti-Musharraf forces of dragging its feet on the issue, says that it does not have the required number in parliament to impeach the president. PPP co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari, who has vowed to bring his man in the President’s House, says that his major allies, including the MQM, ANP and JUI-F, are unlikely to support the impeachment move.

Following the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto, the president’s camp faces an uphill task of convincing the PPP to adhere to the deal Benazir made with the president. “The entire plan was worked out in detail. There had to be presidential elections on Sept. 15 (2007), followed by general elections in three months. Benazir Bhutto was supposed to return to the country after the general elections. Her only demand was the removal of all the corruption cases against her,” says an official privy to the understanding and the one-on-one meetings between them. “After that, Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif would have been allowed to return in the phased plan of transition from the military-led government to the civilian elected government.”

However, Bhutto violated the understanding by coming to the country before the elections despite the fact that Pakistani intelligence agencies informed her about the grave threat to her life by the suicide squads, he added. Bhutto survived a suicide attack on October 18 on her return to Karachi, but fell victim to the second gun and bomb assault on December 27 in Rawalpindi. The killing changed the carefully crafted script and increased the woes of the beleaguered president, who was seen as the best choice for Pakistan along with Bhutto, not just by Washington, but also by many Pakistanis. Analysts say that the lawyers’ movement forced Bhutto to return to the country at great peril to her own life. She wanted to keep the initiative and not follow the establishment’s line in totality, said a senior PPP leader and a close friend of Bhutto.

Official sources say that after Bhutto returned to Pakistan, Saudi pressure on Musharraf increased to allow the Sharif brothers to return to the country. The Saudis trusted the Sharifs far more than they did Benazir who, being a progressive woman, was not popular among the officials of the conservative Islamic kingdom.

The Musharraf-Bhutto team would have been ideal not only for the smooth and gradual transition to democracy, but would have also proved far more effective in fighting the scourge of extremism and militancy in the country, says a political analyst.

According to him, Zardari lacks both the political stature and acumen to get such an understanding implemented without tarnishing the image of his party. “He is sending conflicting signals. He sends us one message and a totally different one when he speaks in public,” says a presidential confidante.

The other sticky point between anti-Musharraf hardliners in parliament and the establishment is the existence of the National Security Council (NSC). A certain section in the establishment stands bitterly opposed to the efforts by elements within the ruling coalition to abolish the NSC and do away with Article 58(2)(b). Presidential aides maintain that the NSC is vital for the smooth functioning of democracy in Pakistan, as it provides a formal forum to the military and civilian leadership to interact and discuss issues of national importance. Article 58(2)(b) is also seen by the establishment as the safety valve to prevent another martial law. They maintain that Musharraf has no intentions of using this article to sack the government and dismiss parliament. And with good reason. In any polls in the near-term, the same old faces are most likely to return. Also, any fresh elections are likely to boost the numbers of Musharraf’s arch enemy — the PML-N — in parliament.

As the pro-and-anti-Musharraf lobbies lock horns, the president’s camp feels that their leader has not yet run out of options.

“Certainly, we are not likely to see Musharraf reduced to the stature of former powerless presidents such as Rafique Tarar or Chaudhry Fazal-e-Ilhai. It is against his temperament,” says a presidental aide.

But Musharraf is in for a roller-coaster ride as his political adversaries are determined to topple him. One of his biggest failures, which he admits to in private circles, is that the very same politicians — Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari — whom he had vowed to banish from politics on charges of corruption and misrule, have risen from the ashes to emerge as the  most important players in Pakistan’s political arena. The so-called winds of change have changed little in Pakistan’s political scene.

Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.