Moving ahead, finally? —Abbas Rashid

How the president will actually go is not entirely clear. While the talk is mostly of impeachment, the strategy seems to be one of using the threat to force the president to quit

Two issues have bedevilled the relationship between the key components of the governing alliance, the PPP and the PMLN, ever since the government was formed: the restoration of the deposed judges and the removal of the president from the scene.

The PMLN is generally regarded as being more seriously committed to a short timeframe on both counts. So far, if stated positions are anything to go by, the highest priority for the PMLN seemed to be the restoration of the judges. But the issue is now clearly relegated to second place.

In this context, one of the more peculiar aspects of this round of negotiations in Islamabad was the parallel development whereby a summary for the restoration of eight judges of the Sindh High Court was reported to have been signed by the president. It could only have been put up to him by the ministry concerned and the question yet to be answered is why would this be done at a time when the restoration of the judges was one of the two key issues whose modalities Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif were supposed to be working out? While this attempt at the selective restoration of the judges was suspended by the government, the move was, not surprisingly, seen as a bid to create a breach within the ranks of the deposed judges and outflank the lawyers’ movement.

In any case, those who felt that the move against Musharraf could have come at a slightly later date and that the restoration of all the deposed judges was a higher priority will be disappointed at the developments reported from Islamabad on Thursday. Previously, even as deadlines announced after meetings in Murree and elsewhere came and went, there was at least a deadline that generated pressure to move on the issue. This time there is no deadline and all we have is a commitment that the judges will be restored after the other issue of the removal of the president has been tackled.

How the president will actually go is not entirely clear. While the talk is mostly of impeachment, the strategy seems to be one of using the threat to force the president to quit. To begin with, the provincial assemblies will pass resolutions seeking impeachment and this will be followed up by the parliament deliberating the charge sheet likely to include Kargil, Lal Masjid, the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti and much else. Musharraf may also be asked to secure a Vote of Confidence which requires simple majority, which he does not have, and is therefore not likely to go this route.

However, if it does come to impeachment, which requires two-thirds of the members voting for the resolution, getting the requisite numbers would not be a simple task. To come up with 295 members out of 442 in support of the resolution in a joint sitting of both houses, the support of independent legislators that number around twenty-five, mostly from FATA, will be crucial. For obvious reasons this can prove to be problematic.

For a variety of reasons, the GHQ’s take on the situation will be important. That this is so is unfortunate but it is part of the facts on the ground. The outcome of the recent bid to contain the powers of the ISI serves to illustrate the state of the continuing civil-military imbalance in Pakistan. Even whether most of the president’s political allies, more outspoken and curiously confident in recent days, hold their ground will in large measure depend upon the attitude adopted by the army high command, also in session at a corps commanders meeting in Islamabad on Thursday. The new Chief of Army Staff is seen as someone with a professional orientation who wants the army to take a back seat when it comes to political issues. The army’s hands off approach at the time of the elections resulted in a very different outcome from the one desired and expected by Musharraf. In line with this stance, there is the expectation that the army will allow the process to play itself out and let the chips fall where they may.

Even so, the president is not entirely without options. It is unlikely that he will use his powers to dissolve the National Assembly under Article 58-2(b), given the national as well as the international environment, but he could consider again the imposition of a state of emergency in the hope that he can get away with it. Any such move can lead to prolonged instability and spell disaster for the polity but cannot be ruled out given what seems to be the president’s ‘Musharraf first’ frame of mind.

Then there is the Supreme Court whose incumbent judges could well seek to examine the merits of any impeachment charge sheet against Musharraf; and given their special situation not find themselves entirely unsympathetic to his case.

Are these then the factors that form the basis of the neutral statement by the US State Department to the effect that whether Musharraf stays or goes is an ‘internal matter’ for Pakistanis to work out? But clearly President Musharraf is a worried man otherwise he would have left for Beijing as scheduled. This is not a visit that he could have passed up casually.

In any case the best outcome would still entail Musharraf being persuaded to quit rather than force an impeachment process on a nation already reeling from the insurgency on its western border, spiralling inflation, a nose-diving stock market, an aggravating food crisis and crushing poverty for millions. One way or the other the president’s exit and the restoration of the judges seem to be the minimum conditions for seriously addressing these pressing issues, even if far from sufficient.

It is time to deal with both and to move on.

Abbas Rashid lives in Lahore and can be contacted at abbasrh@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times, 9/8/2008

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