Monday, March 2, 2009

Political Instability in Pakistan

Pakistan faces a new chapter in political instability with the Supreme Court disqualification of Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif from holding or contesting for any public office. All indications are that the coming conflict between the Sharifs and the Pakistan People’s Party, particularly its leader Asif Ali Zardari, will be bitterly fought.
The Court’s verdict disqualifying Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif from electoral politics could not have been different. It was only to be expected after the former Prime Minister recently declared his resolve to participate in the proposed Long March by lawyers. The Court’s ruling is seen as having the stamp of President Asif Ali Zardari, who had been threatening to use this most potent weapon if the Sharif brothers did not stay away from the lawyers’ agitation.
Restoring Judicial Status Quo
President Zardari, too, is in a way committed to restoring the judicial status quo ante as he had signed an accord with Nawaz Sharif during the run-up to the elections. They had struck the deal when both wanted the Musharraf regime to go. But now Zardari cannot afford to get annulled all that the former military ruler did.
Former President Pervez Musharraf had issued the National Reconciliation Order (NRO), declaring all the cases against Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, as withdrawn. If the Zardari-Sharif accord is implemented in full, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry will begin to preside over the apex court again, and he is believed to be determined to strike down all the controversial decisions, including the NRO, associated with the Musharraf regime.
Premature Demise
Nawaz Sharif, who holds Zardari squarely responsible for the disqualification has already indicated that the coming weeks and months could be a throwback to the no-holds barred battles between the PPP and the PML(N) of the 1990s. Those battles always resulted in a premature demise for the Government of the day, with either a direct or behind the scenes military intervention towards regime change.
In the strictly legal sense, the Supreme Court ruling cannot be faulted. Nawaz Sharif was convicted by the Musharraf regime in 2000 on charges of attempting to hijack a plane in October 1999.
The plane was bringing Musharraf, then the army chief, back to Pakistan on the day he ousted the Sharif Government., the then Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was convicted in a separate case on charges of defaulting on a bank loan. Though the sentence was pardoned in return for the Sharifs accepting exile to Saudi Arabia, the convictions remain.
Sharif has his own game plan — create a condition for fresh elections, which suits him because of his relatively higher popularity rating. The power struggle between Zardari and Sharif, which has come into the open, may derail democracy once again. All this may lead to a bitter fight between the PPP and the PML (N) as it happened during the 1990s. That could mean an invitation to the army to recapture power as well as creation of conditions to be exploited by extremists.
Countrywide Protest
The PML (N) has launched a countrywide protest against the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from taking part in elections. The court cases against the Sharifs had no meaning as these were registered at the instance of Gen Pervez Musharraf soon after he came to power by staging a coup.
By “managing” the judgement that suits his political objectives, Mr Zardari has earned the dubious reputation of “implementing the Musharraf agenda”. He has exposed himself to the charge of keeping the Sharif brothers away from power, as General Musharraf did.
With an open, unrestrained and headlong confrontation between the two biggest political parties of Pakistan now inevitable, the current Government is bound to be buffeted by political storms. To protect its flanks, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will be forced to seek the support of the military establishment on one side and the quintessential establishment political party, the PML(Q), on the other. The end result of this could be the dislodging of the PPP-led coalition and/or another derailment of the democratic process. At the very least, the military will once again start playing a pivotal role in deciding the course of Pakistani politics.
The resulting instability could lead to consequences far worse than what Pakistan has experienced during such episodes in the past. It is not the same country that it was in the 1990s. A weak civilian Government has virtually surrendered to Taliban militants in a region of the North-West Frontier Province. The tribal areas were already militant pocket boroughs. Jihadists are making inroads into all parts of the country. Political warfare is bound to further paralyse governance, providing opportunities for militancy and extremism to flourish, and aggravate the economic crisis. Under the circumstances, the people of Pakistan are the real losers.

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