Surprises In Pakistan

Editorial: Surprises In Pakistan
Chicago Tribune: August 27, 2007

For a long time, observing Pakistani politics has involved about as many surprises as looking at the landscape on a long drive across rural Illinois . There is corn and soybeans in Illinois , and there is President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan , and not much else. Since he seized power in 1999, he has served as head of government and head of the army, locking down both of the country's centers of power and almost single-handedly deciding the country's direction. But lately, things have been getting more interesting.

First, a new power asserted itself -- the legal community. When Musharraf tried to sack the nation's chief justice, who he feared might block his efforts to remain in office, lawyers and other demonstrators poured into the streets to protest his abuse of power. The Supreme Court said the president had broken the law and ordered the reinstatement of the chief justice.

Musharraf, faced with mass protests, sliding popularity and extremist violence along the border with Afghanistan , considered declaring a state of emergency and postponing parliamentary elections. But he changed his mind after a call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who presumably advised against it.

Last week, the Supreme Court created an opening for the political opposition to further challenge Musharraf. It said the government may not bar the return from exile of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is leader of one of the country's major parties and whom the general overthrew eight years ago.

This decision came amid speculation that the embattled Musharraf would allow the return of another opposition leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as part of a power-sharing deal that would let him retain his office. It also comes just months before the parliamentary elections scheduled for year's end.

Sharif says he will run to regain his former office. Instead of joining forces with Musharraf, Bhutto may have the option of entering an alliance against him with Sharif.

Musharraf's 1999 coup was popular with Pakistanis, who hoped he would end corruption, revive the economy and restore civil rights that Sharif had suspended. No more. In the past year, his approval rating has plunged from 63 percent to 34 percent, and 64 percent of his people oppose giving him another term as president.

His experience is the latest repetition of a familiar cycle, in which military rulers and elected civilians take turns proving their inability to solve the deep problems that have long, long plagued the country.

Having witnessed Musharraf's failures, Pakistanis are eager for a return to democracy, and they may get it. This time, maybe it will even put down roots.

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