ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 9, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 15

Pakistan: Democracy, fundamentalism or military rule again?

Across the Palk Straits By Kuldip Nayar

Give me a new cliché to describe the situation in Pakistan. The old one that "the country is at the crossroads" has worn out. But strange as it may sound, this phrase is the closest to the reality. Pakistan can return to democracy; it can go fundamentalist or it can be pure military's rule all over again.

A few days ago when I was at Lahore, I saw all the three possibilities and people discussed them endlessly. It is understandable why Benazir Bhutto, chairperson of the largest organization, Pakistan People's Party (PPP), has repeatedly warned that Pakistan can go to religious parties if democracy is not revived without further loss of time.

Pakistani lawyers chant anti-Musharraf slogans in front of the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Pakistan on Thursday, Sept 6, 2007. Hundreds of lawyers rallied and boycotted courts across Pakistan in a renewed campaign to force Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to step down, an organiser said. (AP Photo)

The bomb blasts-the recent ones at Rawalpindi are by the jehadis-indicates that religious terrorists are more determined and more committed than Islamabad imagined them to be. When the Taleban and the al-Quaeda forces are strong enough to "rule" over Waziristan in the NWFP and kidnap Pakistani soldiers at will, the situation should evoke serious concern. This may well be the reason why the deal between President General Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto to facilitate her return is "80 per cent through." She may have agreed to Musharraf's continuance because of terrorism.

The hitch, as I found at Lahore, was the opposition of Musharraf's supporters, the Muslim League (Qaide-e-Azam) headed by Choudhry Shujjat Hussain. He wanted Musharraf's re-election as President straightaway by the existing National Assembly and the state assemblies which constitute the presidential electoral collage.

Shujjat did not want Musharraf to shed the uniform before his re-election and was not keen on getting Benazir back. However, Musharraf's understanding to Benazir is said to be that he would give up the uniform if re-elected.

I think Shujjat's real fear is the judiciary's verdict on Musharraf's re-election. The President cannot wear a uniform under the constitution, although Musharraf has overcome this limitation by an amendment. Shujjat has, therefore, asked Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhury to "behave like a judge," a veiled warning. Since the Supreme Court has come to acquire so much respect after the successful agitation of lawyers its verdict cannot be flouted without imposing the martial law in the country. This can have its own repercussions. And is it possible for Musharraf to impose the martial law at this late hour? It is said the real ruler in Pakistan is not Musharraf but the judiciary.

At one time Musharraf had agreed to make necessary changes in the constitution to enable Benazir to become Prime Minister for the third time. So far, the constitutional amendment pegs the tenure to two terms. Benazir, in turn, is said to have agreed that Musharraf could retain his uniform till the end of the year as the amended constitution allowed him. She has been even willing to ensure his re-election provided he sticks to the promise to give up the uniform by the end of the year. This has upset some radical members in the PPP. They want the military out of Pakistan's politics completely.

Here they are on the side of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a contender for power. He says categorically that the military has no place in the constitution and that it must get to the same practice as prevails in India. The PPP radicals feel at home with Nawaz Sharif on this point but their regret is that he would make a joint front with religious elements at the time of elections. Benazir's liberalism continues to be her best asset. Against this background, the return of both the leaders is awaited anxiously in Pakistan. Benazir has fixed no date while Nawaz Sharif says he will arrive in Islamabad on September 12.

My hunch is that Musharraf would send him back to Saudi Arabia if and when he lands. According to official sources in Pakistan, the Saudis have assured Musharraf that they will force the Sharifs to complete the 10-year-exile term, an undertaking he had given for release from prison.

King Abdullah has reportedly told Islamabad that if Sharifs are sent to Jeddah, they will enter a "different Saudi Arabia." On the other hand, Benazir does not feel handicapped by any restrictions on her return, deal or no deal. Musharraf is keeping his cards close to his chest. He knows that his options to impose emergency or martial law are exhausted. People may come on to the streets. America is within the nudging distance of Muharraf and Benazir would never allow that eventuality to take place. Therefore, Musharraf has no option other than making up with Benazir who does not rule out a role for the military in the affairs of Pakistan.

Musharraf has sent feelers to Nawaz Sharif but was rebuffed. That Benazir is coming through a deal has added to the stature of Nawaz Sharif. His entry is through the court. Despite this, he may be surprised that his support has not grown much. His drawback is his alliance with religious elements which the common man does not fancy. But then Nawaz Sharif is not alone in the market to hawk for the support of fundamentalists. Shujjat Hussain, once his ally in the original Muslim League, is in the midst of talks with the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal), the combination of six religious parties. They are also looking towards Musharraf, whatever their rhetoric, for importance. The military got them a substantial number of seats in the last election. They were able to form the governments in the NWFP and Baluchistan as well. Will Musharraf, if and when his deal with Benazir does not come through, join hands with them? His predicament is that in the present situation, how does he pacify fundamentalists on the one hand and assure the Americans on the other that he is fighting against them? He has managed to do this in the past but cannot do so now because many in Pakistan and Washington have seen through him.

This scenario aggravates the problems of Pakistan. What road the country should take to overcome them is its concern. In a way, Pakistan still remains at the crossroads.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.