Pakistan coalition split, not yet estranged

May 14, 2008

The split in Pakistan’s ruling coalition could provide a lifeline for President Pervez Musharraf that the Pakistani people believed they’d yanked away in an election three months ago. 

After the Feb.18 poll demolished Musharraf’s parliamentary support, predictions abounded that the politically isolated U.S. ally would be forced from power within weeks or months. Politicians had even talked about impeaching him.   

p11.jpg But first, they decided, the priority was to reinstate the judges Musharraf dismissed during a brief period of emergency
rule late last year in order to stop the Supreme Court ruling unlawful his re-election by the outgoing parliament. 

Critics poured scorn on Musharraf for not taking the honourable way out by resigning, having delivered an election
that was fairer and less violent than feared.  

Instead, Musharraf sat tight, and the calculation made by the president’s camp could well be working out. Musharraf’s aides always reckoned an alliance between the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the party led by her old rival Nawaz Sharif would be a short-lived affair.   

They felt the PPP, now under the leadership of Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, had more to fear from Sharif’s resurgent Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), than it did from Musharraf. 

Sharif went some way to fulfilling these predictions by pulling the PML-N’s nine ministers out of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s 24-member cabinet, because the PPP failed to meet a deadline on Monday to restore the judges.  

For now the PPP-led government is leaving the ministries vacant, apparently in the hope that Zardari can talk Sharif round, or a compromise is reached over how and when to reinstate the judges.  

The PPP wants to link the reinstatement of the judges to constitutional amendments that could also include steps to strip Musharraf of presidential rights to dismiss a government.  

So there is a common sense of purpose, even if the coalition partners disagree on strategy, and the PML-N has promised carry on supporting Gilani’s government without being part of it.  

Yet, so long as the judges issue remains unresolved the government will be at risk of the PML-N pulling out entirely. 

If a lawyers’ movement, that championed the judiciary in its face-off with Musharraf last year, resumes street agitation,  Sharif must choose whether to back the lawyers and risk destabilising Gilani’s government further.  

The Pakistani people, as they showed in the February poll, had wished for better things from the civilian politicians after nine years under a military-backed government.  

A growing sense of disillusion hasn’t been helped by the United States energetic diplomacy in Pakistan.  Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher met Zardari and  Sharif in London last week as negotiations between the coalition  partners were about to fail.  

There was already a suspicion that Washington is somehow engineering Pakistan’s future by propping up Musharraf, and wants Sharif kept out of government because of doubts about his commitment to the war on terrorism.   

Western governments had encouraged Bhutto to work with Musharraf last year, though it was unclear what Bhutto would have ulitmately done if she’d lived.  

Many Pakistanis now suspect that Zardari could be planning to turn to Musharraf’s camp for support after shedding Sharif, but it is premature to jump to conclusions.  

The best that can be said of the split in the coalition at the moment, is that it has been relatively amicable, with the PML-N continuing to support the government.  

Both sides have refrained from getting into a blame game, and have instead issued statements expressing understanding for the position taken by the other.  

Pakistanis fear however this is the beginning of the end of the coalition and their dream team will give way to one that has little to do with last February’s election.  

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