Friday, May 16, 2008

Chronicles of a split foretold By Shafqat Mahmood

Reality check: Chronicles of a split foretold By Shafqat Mahmood
The News, May 16, 2008

The signs were always there but we chose to ignore them. In the middle of the lawyers movement last year, stories of a deal between the PPP and Mr Musharraf started to surface. PPP leadership denied them but then the NRO happened. It was the first concrete and visible element of a multifaceted arrangement worked out between the party leadership and the General. We also heard that it had been underwritten by the Americans, who gave assurances to both parties that each would keep its part of the bargain.

This became obvious when the PPP gave credibility to the sham presidential election by refusing to resign from the assemblies. It also took an ambiguous stand after Musharraf imposed emergency on November 3 and sacked the judiciary. Benazir Bhutto made one foray to the judicial colony but the sum total of reports coming from the PPP camp was anti-chief justice, and against the real judiciary. This should have been enough for the innocents amongst us, but we still clung to the hope that these were clever tactical moves and post-election things would be different.

The tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto shook everything and also changed realities, at least in our mind. Asif Zardari called Musharraf's pet political party Qatil league and darkly hinted that Bibi had been assassinated by the establishment. This view was bolstered by a lack of proper post-mortem and the hurried cleanup of the crime scene. The administration also insisted on a quick burial. The message that came out was that even if there had been a deal, the murder of Benazir Bhutto had changed everything.

The initial moves made by Mr Zardari after the election solidified this impression. The Murree declaration was no ordinary document. It not only was a pledge to restore the pre-November 3 judiciary, it was the coming together of democratic forces against an overbearing establishment led by Musharraf. The jubilation felt across the country was also indicative of the popularity of this stance. The fact that it was not just a verbal agreement but had been written down and signed by both leaders suggested the seriousness of their intent.

Alas, it was a mirage, a shooting star in the dead of the night. The way events have unfolded since indicate that the American underwriters had done their job very well. It is now obvious that at no stage was Mr Zardari prepared to restore the judiciary to the pre-November 3 status. He went through the motions of signing agreements and making pious statements just to obfuscate the issue. The legal wrangles are also a convenient tool to hide the real intent of keeping up his part of the deal. It was designed to minimise the damaging political fallout of a cynical pursuit of self-interest.

The problem is that in these times of intrusive media scrutiny, clever moves have a very short shelf life. They may fool people for a while but unless there is something concrete in the end, there is no way to keep up the charade. It is not very clever to sign deals and then renege on them. It would have been far better to make ones intent clear right from the start. If it is true, as Mr Zardari says, that the PPP did not contest elections to restore the judiciary to the pre-November 3 status, then what was the need to make such a pledge? It only adds to a sense of betrayal in the end.

Besides the legal questions, the biggest red herring has been the constitutional package. It is obvious that the coalition does not have the numbers to get such an amendment passed because it does not have a two-thirds majority in the Senate. The package thus amounted to delaying the issue for at least a year when the next Senate election is due. Now Mr Zardari says that he is going to bring a resolution in the joint sitting of parliament. How does this help? It too has no legal status. It does not confer on the resolution the status of a constitutional amendment just because a joint sitting has approved it. It is another attempt to confuse the issue.

The PML-N had no choice but to quit the cabinet and it has done the right thing. It fought the election on a pledge to restore the judiciary and reiterated it later. It had to make its position clear. It is still clinging to the hope though that by continuing to sit on the treasury benches it will keep up the pressure on Mr Musharraf and at least not allow him the satisfaction of controlling the government through his proxies in the MQM and the PML-Q. It may also wish to keep its government in Punjab intact. None of this is likely to happen.

The PPP has made no secret of its desire to work with Musharraf. Its prime minister has started to visit the old Army House (where Musharraf insists on living) just as Shaukat Aziz used to do. The back channel contacts thanks to the Rehman Malik-Tariq Aziz link are alive and well. The underwriters are also working overtime to ensure that the arrangement continues. If Mr Boucher's unscheduled London stops were not enough, the American ambassador has again linked up with Mr Zardari on his return. It is a cosy setup between Mr. Musharraf, the PPP and the Americans. Where does Mr Sharif fit into this?

Things are likely to get complicated further if and when the lawyers movement starts. Mr Sharif says that his party will be a part of it. This means that the Punjab government will not stop the marches even if it does nothing to encourage them. How will Musharraf and the PPP react then? Moves are already afoot to create an alternate government in Punjab. The appointment of Mr Salmaan Taseer as governor of the province is significant. Besides being close to Musharraf, and a PPP member, his political background is considered more appropriate for the political games that are likely to unfold.

The president's camp is thus not waiting for a formal split between the coalition to make its move. The plan is not only to link up Q league with the PPP, but make a forward bloc in the PML-N. Deliberate rumours are being floated that the current chief minister, Mr Khosa, will be a part of it. I don't believe this is true but it helps to create a climate for horse trading. A Wattoo scenario of the early nineties is being forecast and the irony is that the main player then is still around to ply his trade.

The people of Pakistan have been short-changed again. Their clear and unambiguous verdict against Musharraf and establishment has been thwarted on the altar of cynical self-interest. The struggle is not over. A new day of battles is about to dawn.


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