Scene set for lengthy struggle

The morning after President Pervez Musharraf took power nine years ago, Islamabad was its usual sleepy self. Only the soldiers on guard outside the television headquarters and homes of senior ministers signalled that once again civilian democratic government in Pakistan had been replaced by military rule.

This week again there was little outward sign — for the moment — of the latest regime change. But few doubt its genuine significance. In the short term, the coalition partners of the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) faction of Nawaz Sharif, the two-time former prime minister, will simply be celebrating with supporters and stressing that “continuity and unity” would be their watchwords.

But both men and their supporters harbour not only a personal antipathy towards the former president, who imprisoned and exiled Sharif after ousting him in 1999, but for each other. Their alliance was one of convenience against a common foe. For the next few months, it is likely the fragile truce between the two parties will hold. Following the largely free and fair election in February, the PPP is ostensibly in the driving seat. But its majority in Parliament owes more to the violent death late last year of leader Benazir Bhutto than to any genuine popularity.

Sharif, however, will bide his time before provoking a new election. The PML-N needs to consolidate its base in the wealthy eastern province of Punjab and integrate the supporters who flow back from the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League once loyal to Musharraf. These include major powerbrokers — and their arrival, plus other elements of Pakistan’s pragmatic political elite that the inevitable horse trading will win over, could well give Sharif’s party the majority it needs to win power.

So the scene is set for a lengthy struggle in which the PPP is likely to find itself on the back foot. The politicking will naturally dominate decision­making.

Immediate indicators of which way the power is flowing will be the question of the restitution of judges suspended by Musharraf and the effective nomination or contested election of the new president. Neither party has made strong policy statements. The drastic measures necessary to tackle the major problems facing Pakistan — particularly the growing extremist insurgency in the West and the flagging economy — are unlikely to be seen in the near future. Overseas powers — particularly the US — are in an unenviable position.

Having backed Musharraf, then engineered the return of Bhutto with a view to giving his regime a moderate, pro-Western civilian face, they now find themselves having to deal either with chaos, a weak PPP-led coalition or Sharif, who is representative of a nationalist and religiously conservative strand increasingly widespread in Pakistani society.

The fact that much of Sharif’s appeal is due to his perceived distance from Washington will not help matters. However, American aid props up much of the economy and finances a large part of the powerful military’s budget. Having funnelled their aid through Musharraf, the US will have to decide who now is their favoured interlocutor. The army is of course still very much a player. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Any fragile stability in Pakistan has depended on a balance in powers of the ruling “troika” — the president, the prime minister and the army chief.

One thing is sure: 173-million Pakistanis, the region and the international community are in for a bumpy ride. We may yet see nostalgia for the Musharraf years — which of course will help legitimise any future move by the military to take power once again. —

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