Thursday, August 23, 2007
Pakistan gets interesting http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-endgame22aug22,1,1292593.story?coll=la-headlines-world&ctrack=1&cset=true
his country's long-running political crisis has entered a decisive phase, with developments in coming weeks likely to determine whether President Pervez Musharraf is able to hang on to power or is pushed aside.
Exiled opponents such as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto are vowing to return and reclaim a place on the political stage. The current parliament, whose rubber-stamp approval Musharraf wants for another term as president, is nearing the end of its tenure. An emboldened Supreme Court is weighing legal challenges to Musharraf's participation in politics while he retains his position as military chief.
And all the while, popular anger simmers. Celebrations last week of the 60th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule and the advent of statehood were muted not only by security fears but by a sense among many Pakistanis that a transition away from military rule is long overdue.
In a nutshell, Musharraf wants to continue wearing both his President (civil) hat and his General (military) stripes. This is an attempt at legitimizing the fact of Pakistan being under military rule, using a democratic fig leaf. The fact is that Musharraf is a dictator - a restrained one, but a dictator nevertheless:
This month, the general considered imposing emergency rule, a measure that would have given him wide-ranging powers to act against political opponents and the Pakistani media. Some analysts believe influential military figures counseled him against such a drastic measure, which probably would have provoked further unrest.
"There were indications that corps commanders were not very keen on the idea," said Urmila Venugopalan, editor of the Asia-Pacific section of Jane's Country Risk. Musharraf dropped the idea of an emergency declaration, but aides said it remained an option.
However, the machinery of Pakistan's government and judicial system is still functioning, and the wheels are grinding slowly but surely. The five-year term of the present (rubber stamp) Parliament is ending and the political opposition will not allow Musharraf's promises of returning the nation to democracy with new (and this time, fair) elections to silently evaporate.
After a long spring and summer of discontent, matters are coming to a head, political and legal observers say. The clock is ticking down on the five-year term of the current parliament, which was elected in a 2002 vote widely believed to have been rigged in the general's favor.
The vote on another presidential term for Musharraf by an electoral college made up of national and regional lawmakers is to take place between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, the general's aides have said. The Supreme Court, presided over by Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the chief justice Musharraf tried to oust, has indicated it will entertain challenges to the vote being conducted by current lawmakers, rather than the new parliament to be elected by early next year.
The high court is also expected to be asked to determine whether Musharraf should be held, at last, to the constitutional ban on holding office while in uniform. Another legal provision that is expected to be invoked by the general's opponents states that anyone who leaves the military must wait two years before seeking public office.
Yet more legal challenges are expected to center on the fairness of the upcoming elections, which are to take place within 90 days of the parliament's dissolution Nov. 15. More than 20 million people eligible to vote are missing from the rolls, and the court has ordered officials to come up with an accurate and updated registry in the next month.
BTW Musharraf's attempted ouster of the Chief Justice was probably the clumsiest thing anyone has tied in Pakistani politics in recent memory. That was the spark that really undermined Musharraf's grip. That same Chief Justice now will preside over ther various legal challenges and elections, which include the return of two major players to the Pakistani politics scene: former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
Bhutto is heavily tainted with corruption, but she made Musharraf an offer he shouldn't refuse:
In remarks to a U.S. network broadcast Tuesday, Bhutto outlined a possible agreement that would reduce Musharraf's power while allowing her to return from exile and perhaps to government.
"So we're not trying to bail out a military dictator by saying we will come there on your terms. What we are seeking is a compromise that could help bring about a stable, democratic, civilian order," Bhutto told PBS. "What we're negotiating for are certain changes that will empower the Parliament to take on the militants."
A deal with Bhutto offers Musharraf a chance to fend off legal challenges to his continued rule and make good on pledges to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, viewed with growing skepticism in Washington.
Of course the deal also includes full pardons for Bhutto and her husband on various corruption charges. Quid pro quo. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, who was deposed by Musharraf in the military coup and exiled, just won the right to return:
His campaign to return and contest elections has been seen by analysts as a challenge to the president, who is facing growing political pressures.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said in his judgement: "The Sharifs can return to Pakistan unhindered.
"They have an inalienable right to return and remain in the country as citizens of Pakistan."
Mr Sharif's brother, Shahbaz, another politician, was also exiled in 2000.
Mr Sharif leads the biggest party in an opposition alliance committed to removing his Gen Musharraf from power.
He and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan announced in London in June that they were teaming up to challenge what they called Gen Musharraf's "dictatorship."
Mr Sharif, who still officially heads his faction of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League party from exile, served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993, and again from 1997 to 1999.
Note that the decision to permit Sharif to return was made by Chief Justice Chaudhry.
In one sense, there's three Pakistan's in conflict here. Musharraf represents the status quo, ironically - Pakistan has been under military rule for most of its history. Sharif represents the most genuine element of Pakistani democracy that exists, and will probably be adopted by the reformists within Pakistan who want to move the country forward. Bhutto represents the old "democracy" of Pakistan, wherein powerful families rules the nation like a fiefdom. It's not surprising that Bhutto wants to ally herself to Musharraf, in that context. Sharif was hardly a good Prime Minister by most standards, it must be admitted, but should he succeed he will be at the apex of the new movement within Pakistan for reform and thus is probably Pakistan's best hope for building a stable society ruled by Law.
Incidentally, what's the role of the US in this? Overall, neutral - the Bush Administration is focusing on the mechanics of the upcoming election:
At this juncture, the Bush administration appears to be using its influence primarily to push for free and fair parliamentary elections, sidestepping the question of whether Musharraf should be allowed to continue as military chief.
During a visit to Pakistan last week, Richard Boucher, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs, said the Pakistani leader had pledged to "address or deal with the issue of the uniform . . . during the course of this transition."
Asked whether he believed the general would in fact do so, Boucher replied, "Yes." Then he added, "We'll see."
The U.S. failure to exert pressure on Musharraf to relinquish his military role has left many Pakistanis cynical, believing that the expediency of an alliance with him trumps the U.S. commitment to democracy in the region.
Cynicism aside, spending whatever political capital the US has on the election mechanics is probably the best investment we can make. The fact is that Musharraf won't surrender his military uniform unless forced to do so. A genuinely free and open election will do more for democracy promotion in Pakistan than any threats of withholding aid (short-sighted though that would be, given the real threat of Al Qaida in the northwest) would possibly be. I think that Pakistan is one case where the US is doing the right thing as far as democracy promotion goes; the rest is up to the Pakistanis themselves.
UPDATE: Sepoy has more.
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