Pakistan Parliament to Rein In Musharraf as It Elects a Premier
By James Rupert, Bloomberg.com, March 24, 2008
March 24 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistan's new parliament today begins moving to take control of the country away from President Pervez Musharraf. The ruling coalition's leaders likely will advocate a less aggressive approach to taming Islamist extremists than Musharraf has pursued.
The first step will come when the Pakistan Peoples Party and its allies elect former National Assembly speaker Yousuf Raza Gillani, a lieutenant of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, to be prime minister.
Gillani, 53, will oversee the government, implementing policies forged by leaders of the assembly's two main parties, who have yet to announce whether they will try to remove Musharraf or merely strip him of power eight years after he took over in a military coup.
PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower, is seeking to avoid confrontation. His coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, wants Musharraf ousted.
Zardari ``seems personally more conciliatory toward Musharraf,'' said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and independent political analyst in Islamabad. Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister in the 1999 coup, ``just hates the guts of Musharraf,'' Masood said.
Once the ruling coalition has its members running government ministries, Zardari and Sharif likely will detour from Musharraf's U.S.-backed policy of aggressively pursuing Islamic extremists, said Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
`Live With It'
Public pressure ``will force them to differentiate themselves from Musharraf and the United States'' by emphasizing negotiations more than military action, at least initially, Weinbaum said. The White House ``is going to have to live with that.''
While the Bush administration has called Musharraf a key ally in its fight against terrorists, it has voiced frustration that he hasn't made more progress against extremists.
Aided by $10 billion in U.S. aid since 2002, Musharraf has used a combination of military offensives and peace agreements that has failed to stop the Taliban and allied guerrillas from strengthening along Pakistan's western border and attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Zardari, 51, has criticized Musharraf's approach as ineffective, though he also favors military force in ``combination with negotiations,'' said Hassan Abbas, a former senior police official under Musharraf and Bhutto and now a Harvard University researcher.
A New Strategy
The PPP leader ``is consulting with the political parties, police and military leaders'' on a new strategy, said Abbas, citing members of Zardari's team. Sharif, 58, has said he opposes further military offensives because they've failed so far.
Weinbaum said he expects ``an agreement of some kind'' between the government and militants, though he predicted any deal ``will ultimately fall apart,'' forcing Pakistan to revert to a more aggressive approach.
Sharif and Zardari have said a top priority for the new government will be reducing the presidential authority that Musharraf amassed, especially his power to dissolve parliament.
It is unlikely the legislature will remove Musharraf from office through an impeachment proceeding.
``The ground reality is that we do not have a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament that would be required for successful impeachment,'' Zardari told the magazine Newsline in February. ``We need unity and not confrontation.''
Though Zardari's coalition created a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly after the Feb. 18 elections, Musharraf allies will continue to control the Senate until elections are held for the chamber next year.
The coalition may try to engineer Musharraf's ouster through the courts. Pressed by Sharif and lawyers, Zardari has agreed to begin the process of reinstating Supreme Court justices fired by Musharraf within a month.
The justices were removed in November as they were about to rule on the legality of his re-election the previous month. Once they're back, ``it may be all over for Musharraf,'' Abbas said.
Musharraf is scheduled to swear in Gillani tomorrow, though it's unclear whether he'll serve the full, five-year term of the new government. PPP officials said Zardari may at some point claim the premiership himself.
Now the PPP's vice-chairman, Gillani has a limited power base of his own. He is from the Seraiki, a minority ethnic group in the south of Punjab province.
Gillani ``will be acceptable in the party as a seat-warmer for Zardari, but not for a longer period,'' said Rashed Rahman, a Lahore-based political commentator.
To become prime minister, Zardari must first win a National Assembly seat. He may run within months in his late wife's constituency. That parliamentary seat is vacant after polling was postponed following her Dec. 27 assassination during the election campaign.
To contact the reporter on this story: James Rupert in Islamabad at email@example.com.