Pakistan: Politicians, Judges and a General

14 May 2008

Pakistan: Politicians, Judges and a General

By Gwynne Dyer

“I want to inform the entire nation that on Monday 12 May 2008, all deposed judges will be restored,” Nawaz Sharif told journalists in Lahore after a crisis meeting with the head of the other major party in Pakistan’s governing coalition, Asif Zardari. But it didn’t happen, so on 13 May Sharif pulled all nine ministers of his Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party out of the government.

This was not just a minor spat between politicians. It heralds a major crisis in the country that is America’s most important ally in the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” and the crisis is precisely about the huge influence that the United States exercises in Pakistan.

The sixty deposed judges at the centre of the dispute were dismissed last November by the country’s military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf. All of them were really fired for defying his rule, and the Supreme Court judges among them in particular for being about to deliver a ruling that would have declared Musharraf’s “election” as president the previous month illegal.

The constitution said that no serving military officer could run for president, but Musharraf was unwilling to take off his uniform until he had won the “election” in parliament and been confirmed in the presidency. If the Supreme Court was going to rule against that manoeuvre, then the disobedient judges would just have to be removed. But the strategy that Musharraf and the United States had created to keep him in power collapsed when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The plan was that Musharraf, by now a deeply unpopular figure in Pakistan, would allow a controlled restoration of democracy in which another close American ally, Benazir Bhutto, would return from exile and become prime minister. For historical reasons her Pakistan People’s Party stood a good chance of winning a free election. Afterwards, she would work together with Musharraf, now a duly elected civilian president, who would step back from the limelight but still exercise ultimate control over the military.

The strategy might have succeeded if Benazir Bhutto had not been killed in December, but much of the PPP’s popularity was really reflex loyalty to the Bhutto family. Her successor as party leader, her husband Asif Zardari, was a deeply controversial figure who could not mobilise popular support in the same way.

The PPP emerged as the largest single party when the parliamentary elections, postponed because of Benazir’s death, were finally held in February, but it did not win enough seats to form a government on its own. It had to make a coalition with the second-largest party, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which had no secret understandings with the United States or Musharraf.

Sharif was the elected prime minister whom Musharraf overthrew in his 1999 coup, and he is unyielding in his opposition to the general staying in office as president. When the two parties formed a coalition government two months ago, they agreed that the judges who were unjustly dismissed by Musharraf would have to be reinstated, but it turns out that they didn’t mean quite the same thing by it.

Sharif understood it to mean that the judges would get their old jobs back — whereupon the Supreme Court would deliver the ruling on the legality of Musharraf’s “election” as president that they were fired to forestall last October. Goodbye Musharraf (unless the army stages another coup to save him, which seems unlikely at this stage).

Zardari, on the other hand, remains loyal to his late wife’s deal with Musharraf, and talks about restoring the deposed judges — but not necessarily to their old jobs, and only as part of a package that also restricts their powers. In other words, they would not be able to pull the plug on Musharraf. All the influence of the United States, of course, is behind Zardari and the PPP.

The first deadline to restore the judges was missed on 30 April. The second passed without any government action on 12 May, and the following day Nawaz Sharif pulled his party out of the governing coalition, which then lost its majority in parliament. He says he may continue to vote with the PPP on an issue-by-issue basis, but what seemed to be a remarkably smooth return to democracy has been seriously destabilised.

The Bush administration’s obsession with saving Musharraf is wrong not just because it is sabotaging Pakistani democracy, but because he does not really serve US interests in the region any more.

Washington values Musharraf because he has gone along with the US strategy of aggressively pursuing “militants” and “extremists” in the Pashtun-speaking regions along the Pakistani-Afghan border. It has repaid him with large amounts of foreign aid and unfailing political support. But it was precisely that strategy that made Musharraf the least popular public figure in Pakistan, and it manufactures far more enemies of the United States (and of the Pakistani and Afghan governments) than it eliminates.

It really is time for Washington to drop both him and the strategy.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The first…more”)