Aug 22, 2008

World - After Musharraf;Pressure on Pakistan's Coalition

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf resigned from office Monday. It was hardly a surprise, as the 65-year-old president's political allies and even the Army's top brass, which he had commanded for years, had largely deserted him in the face of certain impeachment by the heavily anti-Musharraf national Parliament. He tendered his resignation in an emotional and at times defiant nationally televised speech that lasted for more than an hour. His ouster puts squarely in the spotlight the five-month-old coalition government--and its weak performance so far. No longer will coalition leaders be able to blame so-called "conspiracies" being hatched in the presidency for the country's economic, political and security failings. Bereft of excuses, it will now have to deliver.

Musharraf, ever the combative 44-year military veteran, did not bow out meekly. He started out by giving a spirited defense of his nearly nine years of largely authoritarian rule. As he ticked off a long litany of his regime's economic, social and political achievements, it seemed that perhaps he was having second thoughts about resigning. But then he conceded the inevitable. "This is no time for individual bravado but for seriousness of thought," he said, dressed in a dark suit and flanked by two Pakistani flags. "Having reviewed the situation and having consulted my legal advisers and political supporters, and on their advice, for the interest of the nation, I have decided to resign." He added that he did not want to drag the military into the fight, and that he wanted to protect the presidency and end months of political uncertainty. "I don't want anything from anyone," he said. "My future is in the hands of the people. Let them be the judges and let them do justice."

Unfortunately for Musharraf, Pakistanis spoke loudest last February when, in the general election, the president's allies were routed--in a vote largely seen as a referendum on his years in power. The political parties of his two staunch adversaries, Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower, and Nawaz Sharif, the man whom he overthrew in a bloodless coup in 1999, swept the polls and formed an uneasy, indeed fragile, coalition government. But Zardari and Sharif did unite on one issue: the need to remove Musharraf from office. On that common goal they have finally succeeded.

Having lost the presidency, Musharraf is unlikely to stay in Pakistan for very long, as NEWSWEEK reported Sunday--just in case his opponents, sensing his vulnerability, may try to instigate further legal proceedings against him. He will remain in his British-colonial-style "camp office" in the Rawalpindi army garrison for the next few days, then he is expected to leave on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, a former senior aide--whose information has proved reliable in the past--told NEWSWEEK. According to the source, Musharraf will remain outside Pakistan for two to three months while tempers cool. (The United States, which stood by Musharraf as his popularity waned, has cooled on him of late. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated over the weekend that there has not been serious discussion about Musharraf seeking refuge in America.)

Musharraf sounded bitter when speaking about how he had offered a hand of cooperation and reconciliation to his two adversaries but had been rejected. "I was for reconciliation from the very beginning," he said. "Sadly, some elements have politicized the economy and the War on Terror," he added. "Instead of reconciliation we got confrontation."

Musharraf offered no apologies for what his political enemies saw as his most egregious moves: his coup against Sharif, his manipulating the Constitution to remain in power, his imposition of the state of emergency and his sacking of 60 judges last November in an effort to save his presidency. He admitted that he had erred. "I might have committed mistakes," he said. "But everything I did was with honesty and integrity." He dismissed the coalition's impeachment charges against him. "Not a single charge can be proved," he said. "I'm not worried about any charges."

He went on the offensive, saying the country's present economic crisis--25 percent inflation, power blackouts, a depreciating currency, falling stock market and lack of investor confidence--was the responsibility of the coalition government. "The economic crisis is six months old," he said. "Our economic policies drew worldwide praise." He read out a litany of his regime's economic achievements: 6 percent growth rates, billions in foreign investment, highways, canals and airports built, even high hotel occupancy rates. He also took credit for empowering women, giving them more seats in Parliament and the national assemblies, and for carrying out last February's election, which he called Pakistan's "freest and fairest ever."

He did indeed liberalize the once moribund economy, and he promoted media and cultural freedom. His economic record is a benchmark against which the new government will be measured in these turbulent times. "In his departing comments, he has articulated a legacy against which the new lot [the coalition] is going to be judged on a very constant basis," says respected political analyst Nasim Zehra. The coalition can no longer point to the presidency as the source of the country's ills. "Now they [the coalition] will be held accountable," she says. "They need to pull up their socks, put their heads down and do some real work."

One of the coalition's first orders of business in the post-Musharraf era will be to deal with the contentious issue of restoring the 60 judges, including the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, to the bench. Zardari has long dragged his feet on the issue, even though the vast majority of Pakistanis seem to support the judges' reinstatement. Most believe that Zardari is afraid that once the maverick Chaudhry is back in office, he may declare unconstitutional the amnesty decree proclaimed by Musharraf that quashed all corruption charges against him and a host of other politicians. But restoring Chaudhry to the bench has long been Sharif's priority. "The real test of the coalition starts now," says pro-Musharraf politician Tariq Azim. "He was their common target, the reason they were united. Now we have to see whether this fragile coalition can stay together with Musharraf out of the way."

Beyond the contentious issue of the judges, Zardari and Sharif are believed to have sharply differing views on who should replace Musharraf in the presidency. It has long been rumored that Zardari covets the position for himself. Sharif certainly would prefer other candidates. Nor do the two men agree on how to pursue the struggle against Islamic extremism along the country's Western border. There, pro-Taliban Pakistani militants, largely ethnic Pashtuns, are aggressively expanding their control to most of the countryside and have implemented a harsh Taliban-style regime parallel to that of the government. While Zardari tends to side with U.S. perceptions of the danger that Islamic extremism poses to Pakistan and to Afghanistan, as well, Sharif sees the conflict as largely an American war in which Pakistan should limit its engagement.

The Army, which has suffered heavy casualties in the fight over the past few years, trusts neither man. For Pakistan's stability, all three-- Zardari, Sharif and Army chief Ashfaq Kayani--will all have to learn to cooperate. Whether they can is perhaps the biggest question facing the country after Musharraf's departure.

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