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The Political Situation in Pakistan

Pervez Musharraf's future is on the line as opposition lawmakers take power


The Political Situation in Pakistan

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf

Updated April 03, 2008
If there's one question perpetually being asked about Pakistan, it's "what's next?"

Pakistan, particularly since the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States, has been the country that many can't quite keep up with. Americans are usually loath to support leaders who staged a coup d'etat to snag the presidency, but President Pervez Musharraf's pro-U.S. government has actively cooperated to capture terror suspects including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. And even with this cooperation, Pakistan claims there's scant evidence the al-Qaida leader is hiding out on their turf and won’t welcome in Western forces to find him -- even though analysts and journalists alike peg No. 1 fugitive Osama bin Laden's location as being the lawless tribal region of Waziristan.

In short, Pakistan is the partner you need to keep around, but love to hate.

The waters are even murkier in light of the Dec. 27, 2007, assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, postponing elections in which Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif -- the prime minister whom Musharraf ousted in 1999 to come to power -- led an opposition slate determined to in turn oust Musharraf at the ballot box. The Feb. 18, 2008, National Assembly did, indeed, hand opposition candidates big wins and a parliamentary majority, drawing into question Musharraf's future.

The players are:

  • The Pakistan People's Party, a socialist party that was led by Benazir Bhutto but is now headed by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, until her son Bilawal, named party chairman at age 19, completes his schooling at Oxford.

  • The Pakistan Muslim League-N, headed by Nawaz Sharif. After the PPP and PML-N made gains in the Feb. 18, 2008, election, Sharif and Zardari forged a parliamentary alliance. (The “N” stands for leader Nawaz.)

  • The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which is solidly behind Musharraf yet lost precious ground to the opposition in the 2008 election. (The “Q” stands for Quaid-i-Azam, or “Great Leader,” the title bestowed upon Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first governor-general of Pakistan.)

  • Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of Islamic fundamentalists that is fairly small in representative numbers, yet continues to enjoy support in the conservative border regions and continues to be a thorn in the side of liberal lawmakers who are opposed to outright theocracy. The MMA enjoys a disproportionate amount of time in the spotlight through its carefully staged protests against America, pro-Western politicians, and the war against terrorism. Much of Musharraf's presidency has consisted on keeping the fundamentalist MMA at bay while trying to capture terror suspects within Pakistan's borders.

The opposition coalition, with its new parliamentary power, cannot simply oust Musharraf; however, if the judges he removed from the Supreme Court in 2007 are reinstated, they can. Musharraf's re-election to another five-year term by the Majlis-e-Shoora (parliament) and provincial assemblies in October 2007 was followed by a November state of emergency. The president declared that this was necessary to save the Pakistani state from extremist elements, but the crackdowns on media and the arrest of Supreme Court judges -- along with the Oct. 18, 2007, return of Bhutto from self-imposed exile -- likely fueled opposition gains.

"This is our first step. We have conveyed a message to the world community to support democracy, which defeats dictatorship," Zardari said when the new parliament first convened on March 17, 2008. Musharraf, knowing that his political neck is on the line, has pledged to work with the new government.

Yet he's unlikely to relinquish power easily, and might stoke long-simmering rivalries between the key parties in the new PPP-PML-N coalition to fracture the opposition.

The other key question in Pakistan's future is security. While the opposition parties will likely work cooperatively with America, the U.S. likely has more confidence in heavy-handed Musharraf to crack the whip on terrorists. Not to mention, the very act of political wrangling in Pakistan constitutes a security risk: Where there is instability, forces that support the fugitive Taliban or even al-Qaida may see an opening to act. And Pakistan has a formidable nuclear arsenal (as does neighbor and rival India), though Pakistani officials vehemently insist that security of their stockpile is modeled after Western systems and can’t easily fall into the hands of terrorists.

The new parliament was ushered in with a deadly bombing two days beforehand at an Islamabad restaurant that was popular with foreigners and U.S. embassy staff. With Musharraf and his foes locking horns over power, distractions are aplenty for their common enemy -- forces unfriendly to the democratic government and intent on imposing a strict Islamist regime -- to gain ground. And their shrewdness should not be underestimated: The July 2007 siege of the Red Mosque -- a bloodbath on holy ground that sunk Musharraf's popularity -- was reportedly orchestrated by none other than al-Qaida's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who is thought to also be hiding in the lawless Pakistani border region of Waziristan.

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