Pakistan buds of optimism amid towering risks

Optimism doesn’t flower very often in Pakistan, but the ending of the latest political crisis could prove cathartic.

The country sighed with relief when President Asif Ali Zardari’s agreed under pressure to reinstate Pakistan’s top judge, and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif disbanded a mass protest with a long march just hours away from Islamabad.

A moment of crisis passed. The risk of blood on the streets receded, barricades around the capital were removed and the army was told to stand down.


Pakistan’s educated middle class, in the shape of the lawyers’ movement, has for the first time prevailed over vested interests in the political arena. —AFP


Doubtless, Zardari will face more crises. Only the brave or foolish would predict stability in Pakistan.

After all, the nuclear-armed Muslim nation is learning how to make democracy work after several failed attempts, and its economy is kept afloat by the International Monetary Fund.

The United States and Britain fear the biggest winners from any chaos in Pakistan would be al Qaeda, the Taliban, and various militant groups.

But at least the country’s fractious politicians are getting back on track, having taken Pakistan to the brink just a year after the return of civilian rule.

It wasn’t just about the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Confrontation has given way to reconciliation, and the two biggest mainstream political parties are at least communicating again, even if they can’t be friends.

A weakened Zardari has survived this crisis but could eventually be forced out if he lost the support of his party.

As long as it happened within the constitution, it shouldn’t pose the dangers that mass agitation would.

Central government rule of Punjab is likely to be ended soon and Sharif inevitably will get back control of the province.

Nawaz Sharif, whose support base is conservative religious nationalists, lacks numbers in parliament to destabilise the coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party.

Sharif strengthened his standing by getting Chaudhry reinstated, but he cannot use street power too often. Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and the Western allies would frown on politicians working outside the parameters of parliamentary democracy without just cause.

A constitutional package will be worked on that could remove some of the unpopular president’s sweeping powers and strengthen the prime minister’s role.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is friendly with Sharif, who appreciated his efforts to break the deadlock over the judge, and this augurs well for his government.

On an even bigger canvas, Pakistan’s educated middle class, in the shape of the lawyers’ movement, has for the first time prevailed over vested interests in the political arena.

That is positive. Any leader who stands in the way of building stronger institutions or better governance in Pakistan should now realise he can be called to account.

The Pakistani media played a big part. But some sections are very partisan, favouring Sharif.

There is no bigger risk than spreading militancy. It represents a serious threat to civilian-led democracy in Pakistan, and the experience of the Musharraf years should have taught people that the military alone cannot provide a remedy.

The attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad in September, and on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore this month were measures of the growing danger. Even on Monday as the political crisis subsided, a suicide bomber killed 14 people in Rawalpindi, while missiles believed to have been fired by an American ‘drone’ aircraft killed four suspected militants in the northwest. The missiles hit just outside the Waziristan tribal region where most missile strikes occur, fuelling concern that the US theatre of operations is widening, which could risk fuelling Pakistan’s internal conflict.

Some analysts also raise concerns about PML-N regaining power in Punjab because they believe he panders to hardliners and has taken a tolerant attitude about the presence of jihadi groups and their charity fronts in the province.

Chaudhry could once again complicate politics. He is a maverick who trod on many toes in the Pakistani establishment during his earlier tenure and could do so again. He could be too politicised and could feel he owes Sharif.

But there is every sign that Zardari didn’t agree to reinstate him without first obtaining assurances to protect himself from judicial activism.

Zardari could create problems for himself if the government was vulnerable to accusations of large-scale corruption and misgovernance. A hostile media could whip up a campaign that might end up in court.

Whether Zardari also obtained assurances to protect Musharraf needs to be clarified.

Musharraf would ideally need parliament to grant him some kind of indemnity for actions that violated the constitution.

The army and the United States would prefer the old general to be left to enjoy his retirement and Pakistan to move on.

Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 17th March 2008


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