General Pervez Musharraf’s eight year grip on political power in Pakistan looks increasingly precarious. His desperation showed in his response to the return from exile of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif this month. Sharif returned to challenge Musharraf and his cronies in elections due in November. He was deported hours after his plane touched down in Islamabad.
Musharraf’s term as President is set to legally expire before the November elections, but Musharraf wants to extend his term — by some ruse or other. The current Parliament, which in which his supporters have a majoirty, may give him an extension. A new Parliament — if it is elected by free and fair elections — will go against Musharraf.
Why did Musharraf bother getting rid of Sharif? After all he could always ensure the elections are rigged so that his PML-Q party dominates again.
Musharraf (and his friends in the west) are probably anxious not to create another source of opposition to the Pakistani government. Sharif’s presence in the country would have done that. The US seem desperate to keep Musharraf in place, in some capacity. They say he is all that stands in the way of extreme Islamists getting their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
Right now Musharraf is under attack and threat from many sides. This is just the results and consequences of his record in power.
In July Musharraf ordered the capture of the hardline Red Mosque and its religious school in Islamabad. Over 100 people were killed. This has prompted a surge in suicide bombings and other attacks by Pakistan’s various jihadist organisations.
After the storming of the Red Mosque the army deployed more troops to the North Waziristan region of the country, where pro-Taliban jihadists have been operating, in anticipation of further fighting. The army’s increased presence prompted... further fighting.
Last March Musharraf suspended the country’s chief justice. This sparked a countrywide protest by lawyers, civil society groups and opposition parties until the Supreme Court restored Justice Chaudhry. (The Supreme Court also sanctioned Sharif’s return from Saudi Arabia where he had been exiled under a deal which saw a life imprisonment sentence quashed).
The background to the chief justice suspension was the General’s attempt to find an illegal pretext on which to carry on as both president and army chief. Sharif’s deportation will almost certainly spark a similar protest.
Pakistani media can be very stroppy. If Musharraf were to rig the elections, a huge media outcry would result.
Beyond the major parties there is a new grouping of populist and quasi-Islamist smaller parties called the APDM mounting street protests and court challenges.
Musharraf has few options. One of these is to share power with the Pakistani People’s Party — a course that he has been pursuing ambivalently over the last year, conducting negotiations with the PPP’s main leader, Benazir Bhutto, in her Dubai exile. Her publicists have been working full time to feed the media with stories of Bhutto as both a force to be recknowned with and a champion of democracy. That would be why she’s prepared to do deals with the General.
And the deal is? The PPP would be prepared to give Musharraf some parliamentary exemption to his end of tenure, if he gives up his army post and reduces his presidential powers. The PPP is certainly a force to be reckoned with, but whether its popularity could survive the stink of such a deal is another matter.
By Cathy Nugent