Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Mushararf's Last Act?

Pervez out of order
Pakistani strongman suspends constitution

By Hassan Abbas: Boston Herald, November 6, 2007: The Japan Times, November 8, 2007; The Daily Star, Lebanon, November 7, 2007; Miami Herald, November 8, 2007; Chicago Tribune, November 8, 2007

Desperate to hold onto power, Pervez Musharraf has discarded Pakistan’s constitutional framework and declared a state of emergency. His goal? To stifle the independent judiciary and free media.

Artfully, though shamelessly, he has tried to sell this action as an effort to bring about stability and help fight the war on terror more effectively. Nothing could be further from the truth. If Pakistan’s history is any indicator, his decision to impose martial law may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Musharraf appeared on the national scene on Oct. 12, 1999, when he ousted an elected government and announced an ambitious nation-building project. Many Pakistanis, disillusioned with Pakistan’s political class, remained mute, thinking that he might deliver.

The 9/11 attacks on America brought Musharraf into the international limelight as he agreed to ditch the Taliban and support the United States-led war on terror.

Although the U.S. viewed Musharraf as an agent of change, he has never achieved domestic legitimacy, and his policies were seen as rife with contradictions. For example, he made alliances with Islamist political forces (who in 2004 voted for constitutional changes legitimizing his position and actions). At the same time, he sidelined moderate political leaders.

Last March, Musharraf took his boldest step, removing the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry. To the surprise of many, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people demanded the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution, emboldening the judiciary and changing the country’s political dynamic. In a ruling that Musharraf had little choice but to accept, the Supreme Court itself reinstated the chief justice in July.

Subsequently, the energized judiciary continued ruling against government decisions. Government officials were held accountable for actions that were usually beyond the reach of the law, ranging from brutal beatings of journalists, to illegal confinement for national security.

Musharraf and his allies tried to adjust to this new reality, but their patience ran out when the Supreme Court took up petitions against Musharraf’s decision to run for president. According to the constitution (promulgated in 1973 by an elected parliament), a serving military official cannot run for an elected office. While Musharraf announced that he would leave his military position if he was elected president, his track record of reneging on his promises haunted the judiciary.

Legally cornered, Musharraf has now decided to abandon constitutionality, removing the leading judges of the Supreme Court and provincial high courts and putting curbs on the media. Lawyers, human rights activists and political leaders have since been arrested.

There is widespread public resentment in response to these moves. Rather than taking responsibility for the deteriorating security situation (as evidenced by suicide bomb attacks) and the increasing Talibanization of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, Musharraf has blamed the judiciary and media.

Musharraf’s popular support is at its lowest ebb. Pakistan’s armed forces - repeated targets of suicide bombers - have become demoralized. It is difficult to imagine them standing with Musharraf should civil conflict erupt. Nor can a weak, embattled, Musharraf be expected to fight Islamic militancy effectively or bring political stability to Pakistan.

Opposition political parties are drawing closer together, and human rights bodies, media associations and lawyers’ organizations are expected to defy the emergency orders. Terrorists may also benefit by attacking a preoccupied army and political forces aligned with Musharraf. In the event of sustained protests and potential violence, top military commanders may decide to send Musharraf home - a decision that would not be unprecedenteed in Pakistan’s chronically turbulent history.

Hassan Abbas served in the administrations of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf. He is a research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and author of “Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror".

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