Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Musharraf on the ropes.

Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf just had his choices limited.
Though there is no decisive victor either at the centre or in any of the four provinces, slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) on Tuesday emerged as the single largest party in the national elections.

PPP secured 86 seats in the 272-member National Assembly but needs at least 50 more to form the government. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) took the second spot with 66 seats while the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) backed by President Pervez Musharraf trailed third with 49 seats.

Which puts Musharraf in a very sticky position. He had previously promised to step down from his position as president if his party did not win at the polls.

He may have no choice.

According to PML-N senior vice-president Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, they would extend "conditional support to PPP in forming the government". He said they would go ahead to cooperate with the PPP if their demands were accepted.

"We want immediate restoration of the Supreme Court and high court judges," he said, giving his first demand about judges who were sacked on Nov 3 last year when Musharraf imposed emergency. Seven Supreme Court and 34 high court judges were sacked for not showing allegiance to Musharraf.

He added that the PPP would have to agree to give independence to the media and move a no-trust against President Musharraf.

"Justice Iftikhar will have to come and Musharraf will have to go," Hashmi told IANS, referring to sacked Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is under house arrest since Nov 3 when he was removed from his position.

All of that could be moot if Musharraf decides to play a different card. None of the newly elected leaders can become prime minister until they are sworn in to parliament. Even after that, Musharraf has the constitutional power to dissolve the Pakistani parliament before it has the ability to forward a motion of no-trust or commence impeachment proceedings.

If Musharraf re-instates the judges and justices that he dismissed last November, as demanded by both the PPP and Nawaz Sharif, resuming positions on the bench could see them declare Musharraf's election as president illegal.

Musharraf has another problem: General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani army Chief of Staff. Kayani made it clear through both actions and words that he would not permit the army to become involved in either rigging the vote or intimidating the electorate. In fact, last month he ordered army officers to remove themselves from political functions.

If Musharraf tries to work around the election results and welshes on his promise to step down he could be faced with Kayani taking more direct action to remove him.

Another turn-around in Pakistan is that the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan have lost their fundamentalist Muslim influence in parliament. Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal, which was intent on turning Pakistan into a theocracy, lost 75 seats, leaving them with only 3. While there have been some who hail this as a resounding defeat for the MMA, the truth is they actually boycotted the elections. The MMA threatened women away from the polls resulting in a voter turnout of around 30 percent.

While there has been some suggestion that the decimation of the MMA in the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan means they no longer have control in those areas. That is not likely to be the outcome. While they no longer have representation in parliament, the ultra-religious groups that make up the MMA will continue to exercise control over the tribal areas. With a means of dialogue, however ineffective, now eliminated, the tribal areas will likely become a greater, not a lesser, problem. Areas like Waziristan, which already presented a major problem to Pakistan's security, could spread a major civil war across the whole FATA and include Balochistan and the NWFP.

The only sure result from Pakistan's elections is that US Vice-President Dick Cheney is kicking puppies and chewing the heads off kittens.

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