Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ten Days that will shake Pakistan?

Ten Days that will shake Pakistan?
Najam Sethi's Editorial,
The Friday Times, September 14-20, 2007 - Vol. XIX, No. 30

Mr Nawaz Sharif has come from London and gone to Jeddah as we predicted. He really had no choice in the matter after filing a successful petition in the Supreme Court. If he hadn't returned he would have been branded a coward and "loser" in our honour-stricken society. So he took the right decision. Unfortunately for him, however, the Musharraf regime managed to rub the gloss off his "heroic return" by persuading the Saudi authorities to expose him as being economical with the truth regarding the deal when he went into exile in 2000. Indeed, he looked quite lost when he later realized that the Saudis had actually conspired with the Pakistani government to belittle him and then whisk him away to Jeddah and shut him up. To add salt to his wounds, the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) that he created in London without Benazir Bhutto put up a dismal performance on the day of his arrival. Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Imran Khan, Asfandyar Wali, and the worthies of the Pakistan Oppressed Nationalities Movement (PONAM) couldn't whip up the crowds to protest and rescue him. Meanwhile, Ms Bhutto, with whom he had signed the Charter of Democracy, sat smarting in the wings over his bid to don the mantle of her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Indeed, in a perverse way, the components of the APDM may be happy to have him out of the way. They expect to garner a slice of his support base in the forthcoming elections that may not want to "waste" its vote on a politician whose future cannot be bleaker as long as General Musharraf is around.

The government is smug. Operation "Deport-NS" went off without a hitch. It also sent a strong signal to would-be deserters in the ranks of the PMLQ: stay tight, or else. A flush of confidence in Islamabad could spell the end of the so-called "deal-dialogue" with Ms Bhutto. The government might prefer to go it alone into the presidential election with General Musharraf in uniform rather than dilute the shot in the arm for the PMLQ with the deportation of Nawaz Sharif by openly allying with the PPP. Ms Bhutto, too, might not now want to risk getting too close publicly to General Musharraf after his latest show of arrogance and authoritarianism. Certainly, she has already lost some public sympathy by wanting to do a deal which bails him out of his mounting difficulties. So rather than an overt constitutional amendment deal there may be a "memorandum of understanding" between them, a sort of "non-deal", which ensures that if Ms Bhutto cannot help him directly in getting re-elected as president in uniform she shouldn't destabilize him by siding with the opposition. In exchange, she could hope for a fair playing field in the next elections with the prospect of sharing power with him later.

But before General Musharraf can ride off into the sunset, he has still got to conquer the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Two battles lie ahead. The SC will definitely find the government guilty of disobeying its orders by deporting Nawaz Sharif to Jeddah and will want some heads to roll. But the government can live with such a rap across its knuckles. However, if the SC should order the government to bring Mr Sharif back to Pakistan, then the government is likely to refuse to comply. Therefore bitter conflict will arise. More ominously, if the SC decides that General Musharraf cannot stand for election in uniform or out of it, he will have no option but to obey the court and shed his uniform unceremoniously, or simply exit from the scene, both of which he won't like doing. Or he could clutch at a deal with Ms Bhutto to amend the constitution accordingly. But the PMLQ will try and sabotage it; Ms Bhutto may demand an exorbitant price; and the court may still find all this unconstitutional. Or he could override the court by martial law. Therefore the battle lines have been drawn between the executive and the judiciary. If the judiciary tries to stop General Musharraf in his tracks, he will impose martial law and sack the supreme court. Will he get away with it?

General Musharraf will find the going tough. The official international community will denounce him in public but might wink at him in private if the martial law is short, if it facilitates free general elections in three months or so, and if it leaves General Musharraf in command. In turn, the elections will go ahead if Benazir Bhutto's PPP participates in them and accords a degree of legitimacy to General Musharraf regardless of how the PMLN and smaller opposition parties react. But there could be big trouble for General Musharraf if civil society organizations and political parties successfully pressurize the judiciary not to take a new oath to validate the new Provisional Constitutional Order and if the opposition parties, including the PPP, decide to mount a protest and boycott the polls. This is all very iffy . All the players must think long and hard of the diminishing choice between confrontation and transition.

The next week or so will chronicle the fate of Pakistan under Musharraf.

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