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Pakistan’s poker-game

Irfan Husain
14 September 2007

In the high-stake poker game that is Pakistani politics, President Pervez Musharraf currently holds two aces. The third is held by the restored chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, while ex-prime minister and Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto holds the fourth.

The joker in the pack was unceremoniously discarded on 10 September 2007, when Nawaz Sharif - also a former prime minister, ejected from office by Musharraf in October 1999 - made his eagerly-awaited return to Pakistan. Sharif, told he was being taken to jail in Karachi or Quetta, was put on a waiting plane and flown to Saudi Arabia to complete his ten-year exile.

The deportation of the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (or, rather, of the "Nawaz" faction of the PML) contravenes the supreme-court decision of 23 August that had cleared the way for Sharif to return to Pakistan after seven years in Saudi Arabia. In his widely welcomed judgment, the chief justice had declared that every Pakistani had the right to return to his country, and that the government should not hinder Sharif's entry in any way.

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)

The court has accepted a writ for contempt against the government. Observers fear that if it demands that Sharif be produced before it to ascertain whether he was deported against his will, the stage will be set for another bruising confrontation between Musharraf and the judiciary.

The cards in hand

In the worst scenario, Musharraf might impose martial law for a brief period, and use the resulting suspension of the constitution definitively to rid himself of the chief justice - whom he abruptly suspended on 9 March 2007, provoking widespread popular protests and an ultimately successful legal challenge - as well as five of his equally independent colleagues. After this show of force, the president would hold elections (a month-long window for which opens on 15 September) that would be engineered to produce a hung parliament, with seats divided between the ruling (pro-Musharraf) Quaid-e-Azam (Pakistan Muslim League / PML-Q), Benazir Bhutto's PPP, the Karachi-based ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and the clerical coalition of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). Such a dispensation would allow Musharraf to manipulate the divisions in the opposition to rule for another five years.

The biggest loser in the recent political drama has been the PPP. Benazir Bhutto is seen as negotiating with a dictator, and her party has been isolated and forced on the defensive as a result. For her part, she upholds the "deal" (a word that has become a four-letter word in the Pakistani political lexicon) as a way to break the deadlock, and move the process forward.

The avowed aim of these back-channel talks is to secure a power-sharing formula under which Bhutto could return to Pakistan as prime minister, while Musharraf would be re-elected president for another five years with her support. But supporters and critics alike see their negotiations as a way to get the government to drop the corruption and money-laundering charges against her and her husband, Asif Zardari.

To be fair, these charges have been dangling over her head in Pakistan, Switzerland and Spain for over a decade, and she has not been found guilty on any count. In fact, several of them have been dropped for lack of evidence. But as long as they are on the books, she risks being arrested on her return. Nevertheless, on 14 September she announced her intention to return on 18 October (to "bring back true democracy to Pakistan"), whether or not a formal agreement with Musharraf has been signed.

One of the possible deal-breakers is Bhutto's insistence that Musharraf repeal a constitutional change he made that limits politicians to two terms as prime minister. Since Bhutto and Sharif each served two terms in the 1990s, either would be barred from again becoming the head of government. But the Muslim League is dragging its feet over agreeing to legislate this change as it would open the door to the return of one of their hated enemies (and perhaps in time, such is the carousel of Pakistani politics, both).

A further constitutional amendment Bhutto is insisting on is the repeal of the infamous "Article 58 (2) b" that gives the president the power to sack an elected government. This article, inserted by General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, was the key instrument in thrice dismissing the governments of Bhutto herself and Sharif in the subsequent decade.

If Bhutto had made these demands as the head of a combined opposition, Musharraf's position would have been much weaker. But by refusing to join the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) formed in London in July 2007, she has effectively split the opposition. Her excuse for this divisive step is that the APDM includes the clerics of the MMA, a coalition that is part of the ruling parties in the provincial governments of Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province.

Most Pakistanis suspect that she is indirectly supporting Musharraf at Washington's behest. An indication that at heart she is not with the opposition came when she refused to condemn Sharif's unseemly deportation. And given Saudi Arabia's extraordinarily public role in the drama, the American involvement seems plausible. Indeed, an unnamed state-department source is quoted in the New York Times as saying that "Sharif's deportation was not the worst thing that could have happened".

The next trick

For Nawaz Sharif, his attempted re-entry into Pakistani politics ended in a shambles. The security forces easily blocked his supporters from approaching Islamabad's airport, jammed cell-phones and prevented the media from entering the premises. The operation effectively deprived Sharif of the triumphal procession he was hoping to lead to Lahore.

The damage is broader. Sharif's belated confirmation that he had gone into exile under a deal brokered by the late Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and guaranteed by the Saudis, has reduced his credibility. And his hesitant, nervous behaviour at the airport did nothing to enhance the image of the vaunted "lion of Punjab".

Nonetheless, his attempt to challenge Musharraf did trigger this government's most massive show of force in its eight years in power. Some 20,000 police and paramilitary forces were deployed across central and north Pakistan to prevent Sharif's supporters from approaching Islamabad. In a draconian pre-emptive sweep, thousands of opposition leaders and workers were arrested. Had Musharraf been willing to use the same strength and enthusiasm against the country's growing extremist threat, the country and the region might have been far safer today.

Pakistan might now be heading for martial law and its unforeseen consequences, or the kind of transition to "democracy" the Americans are pushing for. But Washington's desire to install its dream team in power in Islamabad ignores the personalities and ambitions of the favoured duo.

Pervez Musharraf has wielded absolute power for eight years, and has repeated the mantra that the country needs "unity of command" countless times. Clearly, he is incapable of sharing power, particularly with a woman he has been ceaselessly reviling during his years in power.

But Benazir Bhutto is no Shaukat Aziz, Musharraf's current and puppet prime minister. If she wins the biggest number of seats - the likely scenario, given even reasonably fair elections - she is likely to demand a major role in running the country. There is thus every likelihood - even if they agree on a co-habitation arrangement - of constant friction and instability.

It seems that no matter who collects the biggest pile of chips in this poker- game, Pakistan and its hard-pressed people will end up as the big loser.

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