Originally Published 2004-06-29 04:21:08 Published on Jun 29, 2004
The President of Pakistan had expected his handpicked Prime Minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, to perform his bidding and strengthen his position. But President Musharraf was disappointed. He, therefore, felt that a change was essential in order to secure his own place and keep the other power players content.
The Quagmire of Pakistani Politics-will it last?
The President of Pakistan had expected his handpicked Prime Minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, to perform his bidding and strengthen his position. But President Musharraf was disappointed. He, therefore, felt that a change was essential in order to secure his own place and keep the other power players content. Accordingly, Jamali resigned and Chaudry Shujaat Hussain, president of the United Pakistan Muslim League (PML) has been nominated as the interim Prime Minister, who would continue in office till the incumbent finance minister, Shaukat Aziz, takes over in two months, after getting elected to the lower house through a by-election. 

The deadline for President Musharraf to shed his uniform is fast approaching, and a flurry of activity between a plethora of political, religious and politico-religious splinter groups of Pakistan can be discerned. The President was, thus, running out of time to secure his position in Pakistan's politics, in the event that he would have to quit as Army Chief and retain the office of the President. As a run up to this deadline of quitting as Army Chief, the political and religious parties have been working towards enhancing their influence through forming alliances. Meanwhile the military regime is also consolidating its position by giving it a façade of legitimate political process. How long would these marriages of convenience last? How far would they be successful in fostering genuine democracy in the state, given the history of the predominance of the army in Pakistan's political ethos?

The surfacing of Unified Muslim League with Chaudry Shujat Hussain as its President can be viewed in the framework of volatile Pakistani politics. The unified PML is the eventual result of the effort of PML (Q) since it's setting up in 2002 to strengthen the Musharraf regime. The merging of the three-party National Alliance (NA) that has 52 members of parliament with the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) shows the will to strengthen the President's regime against some perceived threat. The present unification is a union of expediency in the wake of the role PML-Q played to support President Musharraf's whims as the uniformed President who, while feeling insecure, needs a propped up mass support system, which can be possible by uniting others with his more trusted King's Party. In their desperate efforts to save their sinking ship, President Musharraf's power collaborators are running in confusion, in search of options that could give them a further lease of life. 

Any future moves in the political dispensation have to be understood in the context of the recent political developments in the country.

Following the unification of five Pakistan Muslim League (PML) factions, two breakaway factions of the Benazir Bhutto-led Pakistan People's Party-PPP-Sherpao and PPP-Patriots also unified to form the PPP. Benazir Bhutto has announced her plans to return to Pakistan and meanwhile has become visible again in the media making strong critical remarks about the current administration, already building ground for her return to electoral politics, sensing the highly unstable situation back home. The assassination of PPP Information Secretary, Munnawar Sharwardy in Karachi on 17 June 2004 could be aimed at sending clear signals to Bhutto about her fate, in case she returns.

The manner in which Shahbaz Sharif, leader of the PML (Nawaz), and brother of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, exiled to Saudi Arabia, was deported from the airport, in complete negligence to the Supreme Court ruling that he is required to appear before court has only proven that any leader with a popular base can give the establishment the jitters. The mass rounding up of PMLN leaders and supporters under Section 144 on the day of his return and the operations being carried out against the party workers since the last one-month has magnified the issue as a "human rights cause". The Musharraf regime's position that Sharif had signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdullah that he would stay away from Pakistan for ten years was neither legal nor constitutional. His deportation has been made into an asset for Sharif by the huge public sympathy generated by the incident and he will be able to use it when the time comes. The PPP and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) decided to welcome him forgetting their past animosities. The targeted murder of PML(N) leader Binyamin Rizvi on 26 June 2004 only shows a pattern in curtailing opposition, him being the third opposition leader to be killed in the last three months.

With the PML (N) supporting the MMA General Secretary Maulana Fazlur Rehman's candidature to the opposition leader in the National Assembly, a trend can be discerned where attempts are being made to appease the MMA for their support in the eventuality of a change. It has been alleged that the appointment of Fazlur Rehman, as the opposition leader in the National Assembly was part of a verbal deal with the government in December 2003 to get the MMA to agree upon the government's amendment package on the Legal Framework Order (LFO), giving the President and the military greater powers. The MMA government signed the LFO agreement just 18 days after of the meeting. However, with the MMA refusing to support the National Security Council bill in parliament, which it had earlier promised to do and the opposition leader Fazlur Rehman boycotting the National Security Council meeting on June 24, President Musharraf needs to work out a strategy to keep the MMA in good humour.

The MMA, an alliance of six religious parties, is a sizeable force in Pakistan and constitutes almost a third of the Parliament. The MMA has demanded an end to the military operation in Wana, is opposed to amending the Hudood laws, and views the President's policies as anti-Islamic. The presence of extremist groups in the alliance such as Jamaat-e-Islami, which are vociferous about their anti-US, anti-Musharraf stand, and their strong presence in three out of four provinces, makes them a force to reckon with. The MMA itself is not free from internal dissent, sticking together to pressurize Musharraf and have a slice of the cake in the bargain.

President Musharraf's desire to hold on to power leads him to build partnership with the MMA, known for its sympathies for the Taliban and other Islamic extremist elements. The MMA and the establishment have fallen out of favour with each other with the MMA opposing Jamali's resignation and threatening to oppose the upcoming electoral process. The ban on MMA leaders from entering Karachi and the en masse arrest of MMA protestors in Karachi and thwarting of their rally by the Sindh police has deepened the animosity. 

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which is part of the Grand National Alliance supporting the Musharraf regime, has given a three month ultimatum to the government to meet its demands, most of which are related to Sindh, failing which the MQM has threatened to withdraw support to the federal government. With the MMA and set against each other in Karachi, and the Chief Election Commissioner ordering fresh by-elections in Sindh, the two parties are involved in a perpetual blame game, passing the buck for the horrendous state of affairs in Sindh. However, President Musharraf himself a Mohajir, might not face much problem in retaining MQM's loyalty, in spite of whatever equations that might emerge with the MMA in future.

The appointment of Arbab Ghulam Rahim, the founding member of Sindh Democratic Alliance and parliamentary leader of National Alliance in Sindh Assembly as the new Chief Minister of Sindh, is a move to reward the merged groups and insulate the alliance of the PML. Holding on to the alliance is proving to be tough, with a possible split in the PML over replacement of Prime Minister Jamali. 

The current political system has failed to provide President Musharraf the political strength that he needed to step down as Army chief. Feeling the weight of the forthcoming date to discard his uniform, Musharraf finds it difficult to rely on the current system that has become a burden instead of a source of strength for him and hence the various permutations and combinations of party alliances are being considered, to strengthen his position by giving it a facade of popular support. Replacement of Jamali as Prime Minister is a frantic move in this direction, hoping that it would enable him to hold on the reigns even after shedding his uniform. Meanwhile, the opposition is trying to do the same to consolidate its position, gearing up for an eventual change.

The vicious circle of violence let loose in Karachi could provide the President enough leeway to retain the position of the sole commander of a sinking ship, minus the façade of 'transition to democracy'. In the light of President Musharraf's own confession that some lower rank officers in the army and air force had masterminded the assassination attempts on him in December last, President Musharraf could completely loose control over the events that would follow, once he sheds his uniform. Musharraf is bound by the 17th Amendment to give up his post of Army Chief by December 31, 2004 and since the two offices-that is-President's and that of Army Chief's-would become separate, there would altogether be a new situation in Pakistan. It is apparent that the President is trying to avert political forces from gaining ground within the country. At the same time other elements are trying to weaken the credibility of the current political dispensation. President Musharraf seems to be fighting the democratic forces, factions in the armed forces and the terrorists simultaneously, with the country's stability hanging precariously in the balance. In these circumstances, would the current political realignments enable fostering of genuine democracy in the state? 

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