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Pakistan’s multi-faceted crisis

About the author
Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Pervez Musharraf's announcement on 11 November 2007 elections would be held in the first week of January 2008 surprised nobody. After all, Pakistan's president had achieved his primary goal of sacking the supreme-court judges who might have questioned his re-election on 6 October. The election schedule was intended to deflect western criticism of his recent actions. But as he announced in a rambling press conference, the state of emergency would continue until the elections. And the judges who refused to take an oath on the newly promulgated provisional constitutional order (PCO) would not be reinstated.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Among Irfan Husain's articles in openDemocracy:

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

"The Baluchi insurrection" (4 September 2006)

"How democracy works in Pakistan" (29 September 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf: in a vice" (6 November 2006)

"Pakistan: zero-sum games people play" (6 December 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (29 April 2007)

"Pakistan: the enemy within" (30 July 2007)

"Pakistan's poker-game" (14 September 2007)

"Pervez Musharraf's desperate gamble" (5 November 2007)

Many opposition parties have already announced that they would boycott the elections if the state of emergency is not lifted. Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP, the country's biggest political party) has combined a cautious welcome for the election schedule with a demand that the emergency should be lifted and chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and his colleagues returned to their posts. It is obvious that the latter is the one opposition demand Musharraf cannot accept without risking his grip on power. After all, this entire exercise in brinkmanship was triggered by his fear that the supreme court was about to declare his re-election void.

It is notable that the response of human-rights activists and the media in Pakistan has been guarded in comparison with the generally favourable noises made by the international community. The new strictures that accompanied the announcement of the emergency - in particular, the simultaneous amendment in the Army Act (1952) to make it possible to court-martial civilians, which has been condemned across the political spectrum - help to explain why. While officials defended this amendment by pointing out the difficulty in obtaining convictions of terrorists under the present criminal laws, critics note that (among many other things) civilians can now be brought before a military tribunal for "giving statements conducive to public mischief". This provision is open to such a wide interpretation that just about any of the thousands of lawyers, political activists and human-rights volunteers currently under arrest can be tried under it.

A country in waiting

Meanwhile, as the political crisis rumbles on, the economy is still reeling from the imposition of the emergency. On Monday 5 November, the first day of business after Musharraf's weekend proclamation, the stock market plunged by 636 points - the biggest one-day fall in its history, representing nearly 5% of the market's value. In three days, over $250 million in foreign equity was withdrawn as many western importers - concerned that Christmas deadlines would be missed due to feared turmoil in Pakistan - cancelled export orders. Standard & Poor as well as Moody's, the two major rating companies, downgraded Pakistan's financial standing.

Domestically, the retail business was hard-hit as people reduced casual shopping. Taxi- and rickshaw-drivers are complaining of reduced business. Demonstrations and brutal police crackdowns have kept ordinary citizens indoors.

But despite the arrest of thousands of opponents, the resistance to Musharraf's state of emergency has continued. Benazir Bhutto's decision to get off the fence has motivated her party activists to oppose the government in large numbers. She may have been thwarted in the attempt to address a public rally in Rawalpindi by a heavy police cordon outside her house, but has managed to travel to Lahore from where she plans to lead a "long march" to Islamabad on 13 November. It is unlikely that she will be allowed to do so as Musharraf no doubt recalls the damaging effects of the chief justice's eighteen-hour motorcade along the same route in the summer.

Yet even if Bhutto is prevented from launching this challenge, there is little doubt that her show of defiance since the emergency was imposed on 3 November has burnished her democratic credentials. There is far less talk now of the "deal" with Musharraf reached on 5 October that had so damaged her reputation. She is now reaching out to other opposition parties and trying to build bridges with leaders with whom she had barely been on speaking terms. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of his faction of the Muslim League and currently exiled in Saudi Arabia, has promised support if Bhutto clearly states that she has terminated all contacts with Musharraf.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (16 May 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan signals red" (5 July 2007 )

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: the power of the gun" (7 November 2007)

Salman Raja, "Pakistan: inside the storm" (9 November 2007)

With opposition to Musharraf solidifying, it is hard to see how he will survive politically in the next phase of a democratic dispensation. If the elections are reasonably free and fair, his ruling coalition is widely expected to perform poorly; and if his own re-election is validated by the newly constituted supreme court, he will have very little credibility and proportionately very little authority. Even the ruling faction of the Muslim League is unlikely to bail him out. As it is, the overwhelming majority of the cabinet is reported to have urged him to postpone the elections by a year as it feared a bloodbath at the polls.

The reality is that despite the loud claims of economic revival made by this government, unemployment, inflation and poverty have all remained high. The stock market and rising real-estate prices might have enriched a select few, but the poor have got poorer; should they get a chance, they will punish those they hold responsible for their plight.

A state in pieces

As these political and constitutional contortions have been going on in Islamabad and elsewhere in the country, how goes the war on extremism in its mountain and border regions? Very poorly, to judge by events in Swat. Here, Maulana Fazlullah's militant army is on the march, and has captured four towns in Pakistan's most scenic area. The police and paramilitary have surrendered or slipped away in droves as heavily armed local Taliban have taken over without a fight.

An advisor to Musharraf has assured me that a major military operation in Swat is about to get underway within the next few days. But a traditional army cannot really uproot the menace of armed guerrillas. This danger has been growing over the last few years, but because the clerical alliance of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) was running the provincial government, it largely ignored the threat posed by extremists. Indeed, it is still critical of firm government action.

Musharraf's best hope must be that the next elections will see a sharply diminished MMA and a bigger share of the vote going to the PPP. But whether Benazir Bhutto, a very shrewd political operator, will throw him a lifeline remains to be seen.

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