Having gotten rid of President Musharraf, Pakistan's ruling coalition has turned on itself, writes Graham Usher in Islamabad
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Pakistani political activists and lawyers chant slogans against former president Pervez Musharraf at a rally in Lahore
One week after coming together to force the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf, on 25 August the two main parties in Pakistan's governing coalition fell apart. At a tense Islamabad press conference ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif said his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) could no longer serve in the same government as the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), party of the late Benazir Bhutto and chaired now by her widower Asif Ali Zardari.
"We joined the government in all sincerity but, unfortunately, when written documents are repeatedly flouted, trust cannot remain. We cannot find a ray of hope," said a grim Sharif.
For most Pakistanis this is bad news. They had hoped the end of Musharraf would free their government to tackle those issues that most concern them, like poverty, energy shortages and an economy in freefall. For everyone else the collapse of Pakistan's democratically elected government after just five months in office is scary: it adds one more fracture to a state already crippled by dysfunction, raging inflation and national and Islamic insurgencies on its frontiers with Afghanistan. Tensions too with India are rising over Kashmir.
The coalition sank on the reef that has snagged it since the February parliamentary elections: the fate of the 60 or so judges Musharraf purged last year in a vain attempt to preserve his presidency. These include Pakistan chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose removal from office sparked mass protests that, more than any other factor, forced Musharraf to go and some form of civilian rule to return.
At the press conference Sharif waved two sheets of paper bearing Zardari's signature. Above it was a written pledge to reinstate the judges "within one day" of Musharraf's resignation on 18 August. Not for the first time Zardari reneged on his word. On 19 August he said the text needed to be "amended". He then said political agreements are not the "Holy Quran" (they are ephemeral). Finally, on 23 August, he accepted his party's nomination as presidential candidate to replace Musharraf. This was in violation of a promise made to the PML-N that any nominee for the post should be non-partisan and consensual. Zardari is neither. Sharif saw this as the final curtain on the coalition.
Why is Zardari so against restoring a genuine judiciary, and especially Chaudhry? One reason is the fear that an independent justice would throw out the amnesty he and his wife received from Musharraf last year on a slew of corruption charges. Another is the "understandings" he brokered with the army, the Americans, the British and the Saudis on Musharraf's "safe passage". All four had agreed to persuade the former dictator to step down as president only if there were assurances he would not be prosecuted for crimes against the state, like sacking the chief justice. As President Zardari will have the power to grant such indemnity. But only a docile judiciary can guarantee it.
The PML-N's departure is unlikely to bring down the government. The PPP has the numbers to survive in both the national and provincial assemblies. But it will heighten confrontation in Pakistan.
While the PPP has a majority at the federal level, the PML-N controls the Punjab, the richest and most populous province. Historically, no government in Pakistan has been able to rule from the centre if the Punjab governs against it. It almost always means impasse. Similarly as long as the judges are not reinstated lawyers will take to the streets, swelled now by mass ranks of the PML-N. On 25 August Pakistan's powerful Supreme Court Bar Association called for two days of protests in the run up to the presidential elections on 6 September.
Finally there is the state's war with the Taliban. After months of tentative, intermittent peace deals, this month the PPP government approved army offensives against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda on Pakistan-Afghan borderlands. So far 600 people have been killed, 300,000 displaced and Taliban has resumed suicide attacks on civilian targets, including the massacre of 67 people outside an ordnance factory near Islamabad last week. On 25 August the Interior Ministry announced it had banned the Pakistan Taliban, foreclosing all chance of negotiations. The Taliban threatened attacks in all the main cities.
Army operations against the Taliban aren't popular in Pakistan, especially when so many innocents are killed along the way. Sharif has said there can be no military solution to the conflict with the Taliban. His party has quietly accused the PPP of fighting "a war against its own people" in exchange for American largess. Those criticisms will become louder once the PML-N goes over to the opposition. And the legitimacy the government enjoys in the fight against Islamic militancy will shrink.
For the last six months the fault-line in Pakistani politics had been between an elected government and a despised, un-elected president. Now a new fault-line has emerged between old adversaries but over the same issue that has dogged Islamabad ever since Musharraf tried to remove the chief justice: the demand for a judiciary independent of executive control. For Sharif not only quit the coalition on 25 August. He announced the PML-N's challenger to Zardari in the presidential election. He's Said-uz- zaman Siddiqui, a former chief justice.