Zardari tightens his hold on Pakistan after resignation of Musharraf

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The long-overdue resignation of former general Pervez Musharraf from the presidency of Pakistan may have lifted his dark shadow from the political scene, but the problems of the people of Pakistan are far from over. They are now confronted by the frightening prospect of Asif Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), becoming the country’s president. Equally serious is the uncertainty hanging over the question of the reinstatement of the judges dismissed by Musharraf last November, when he declared a state of emergency. This has caused serious differences between the ruling PPP and its coalition partner, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who is in reality a political rival for power. Unable to force Zardari to fulfill his written promises, Sharif abandoned the coalition on August 25.

The break occurred after several meetings between Zardari, Sharif and their emissaries following Musharraf’s resignation, when it became clear that Zardari would not reinstate the judges. He is particularly averse to the reinstatement of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice, whose independent-mindedness Zardari fears. Sharif insisted that this was the basic reason for their cooperation, and that if all the judges were not reinstated he would leave the coalition and sit in the opposition. On August 25, Zardari admitted that he was under pressure from “external” friends not to reinstate the judges; it is not difficult to figure out who these “external” friends are. The New York Times reported on August 26 that the Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador to the UN, has been holding daily telephone conversations with Zardari, much to the chagrin of state department officials. They fear that this might be interpreted as gross interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan, at a time when America is greatly despised and resented in that country.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (August 21), Sharif had said that he would wait until August 22 to see what Zardari would do about the judges before he decided on his future course of action. On August 22, however, he told a press conference in Islamabad that the two sides had met and agreed that legal experts would prepare a draft to be presented to parliament on August 25, and that the judges would be reinstated on August 27. PPP spokesmen, however, were coy about the timeline and noncommittal about whether the chief justice would be included in the list of judges to be reinstated. Further differences emerged when it became clear that the PPP had nominated Zardari for the presidential slot without consulting Sharif or his party. When a three-member PPP delegation visited Sharif at his residence on August 23 to seek his support for Zardari’s election, Sharif was furious. He saw this as another attempt by Zardari and his cohorts to hoodwink him. He said he was not averse to Zardari becoming president, but would only agree if the judges, including the Chief Justice, were restored by August 25. When this did not happen, Sharif announced his party’s withdrawal from the coalition and nominated Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui, a former chief justice who had refused to take oath when Musharraf pushed through the coup of 1999, as his party’s candidate for the presidency.

Zardari fears that if he is reinstated, Chaudhry might declare illegal the indemnity Musharraf granted him and Benazir Bhutto, his late wife, under which charges of corruption were withdrawn. It was a cynical ploy by Musharraf to buy time–a futile attempt in the end–but it may unravel now that Musharraf is gone, especially if Chaudhry were reinstated. This would put paid to Zardari’s ambitions to become president. Zardari’s becoming president is a frightening prospect for a country that has witnessed repeated horrors at the hands of greedy feudal lords and ambitious generals. Zardari’s presidency would almost certainly be even worse than Musharraf’s.

A number of developments combined to force Musharraf’s resignation, but it still needed the intervention of Saudi Arabia and Britain to clinch it. Musharraf continued to cling to the fiction that he was “indispensable” for Pakistan. The masses saw him differently: they not only recognised that he had become irrelevant since the election on February 18, but they held him personally responsible for turning Pakistan into a battleground for America’s war against them. But ultimately it was the military’s refusal to back him that forced his hand.

The arrival of Prince Muqrim ibn Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Intelligence chief, in Islamabad on August 16 confirmed rumours that Musharraf was on his way out, despite repeated denials by his spokesman before his resignation speech. It was akin to sighting the hangman in the city before a convict’s execution. The Americans had already been persuaded by prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani during his visit to the US at the end of July to withdraw their support of Musharraf. What Gilani really did was to assure the Americans, especially US president George Bush, that their interests would be safeguarded regardless of who the president happens to be. Gilani also promised that there would be no vendetta against Musharraf despite his repeated violations of Pakistan’s constitution. Sir Mark Lyall Grant, a British envoy, confirmed this and ensured that the Pakistani ruling class understood what they were supposed to do: so much for Pakistan’s independence.

During his hour-long resignation speech, Musharraf talked about his “achievements” during his nine-year rule. He claimed to have stabilized the economy (partly true), ended corruption (not true) and brought about democracy (patent nonsense). He also insisted that he had done nothing wrong, that he was prepared to face impeachment charges against him, and that he would disprove them. Then he donned the mantle of a martyr: “Whether I win or lose the impeachment, the nation will lose.” In order to “save the country” from a political crisis, he would not indulge in “personal bravado” but make the supreme sacrifice of resigning. Not once did he refer to his repeated violations of the constitution or even attempt to justify them: the coup on October 12, 1999, that toppled an elected government; his total subservience to the US since 911, disregarding the wishes of Pakistan’s people; his refusal to resign as army chief in December 2004; his war on the people of Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians; his dismissal of the chief justice in March 2007 that sparked the current crisis; his fraudulent election as president in October 2007 while still occupying the post of army chief; and finally his imposition of emergency and dismissal of judges for the second time in November 2007 in order to save his own skin. Each of these violations would be sufficient ground for impeachment, yet this will not happen under the deal.

Instead, Zardari and co. are busy manufacturing the next crisis. Given the parliamentary numbers, Zardari will become president, but this will certainly be even worse than Musharraf staying on. Zardari is a nasty creature and not very bright either; his only expertise is robbery. With his grubby hands on the presidency, “Mr 10 Percent” will become Mr 100 Percent, given half the chance. Pity the people of Pakistan, who are already reeling under rocketing prices, shortages of essential commodities and complete lawlessness. They may have become apolitical and largely apathetic, but they do not deserve Zardari and his ilk.

Muhammad Mian Soomro, the Senate chairman, has taken over as interim president until the new president is elected, which must be done within 30 days. The Election Commission announced on August 21 that this would take place on September 6. The Electoral College, comprised of the four provincial assemblies, the national assembly and senate, are charged with the task of electing the president. While the mechanics of the exercise are not in doubt, what is not clear is what other disasters are in store for the troubled country. Suicide bombings continue: two struck workers outside the defence factories in Wah on August 21, killing 76; military operations continue in Bajaur, where hundreds have been killed and hundreds of thousands, mostly women and children, have been displaced from their homes. There is also turmoil in South and North Waziristan, while sectarian violence is ripping the Kurram Valley. Baluchistan is on fire, with separatists refusing to negotiate with the government. There is a widespread belief that Indian and Afghan agents are actively involved in carrying out attacks inside Pakistan, as part of the US’s policy to destabilize Pakistan. Washington has also threatened to start bombing Pakistan’s tribal areas, something it has been doing for years without publicly admitting it.

The ruling elites, meanwhile, as clueless as ever, are fighting their own turf wars. The PPP and PML-N coalition has collapsed because the one factor–Musharraf–that forced them to cling to each other is gone. Pakistan’s political scene is likely to continue its downward spiral, making life even more miserable for ordinary people. Given the country’s aimless drift, insurrections in Baluchistan and NWFP and the demoralisation that has gripped the ranks of the military, the country faces a mortal peril to its very existence. One would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that the ruling elites are aware of this, or have any idea how to address this serious problem.

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