Pakistan’s political pandemonium

December 18, 2009

sharifzardaridubaiA Supreme Court ruling striking down an amnesty given to politicians and officials by former president Pervez Musharraf has created havoc in Pakistani politics.  Among those affected on a list of 8,000 politicians and bureaucrats who were protected by the amnesty are the interior and defence ministers, who are now no longer allowed to leave the country until they clear their names in court.

“Pakistan’s interior minister today found himself in the unusual position of being asked to bar himself from leaving the country,” wrote Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

The defence minister abruptly cancelled plans to fly to China on an official visit after his name was included on the so-called Exit Control List,  according to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.

Indeed such was the drama of a defence minister being refused permission to leave his own country that Twitter was briefly abuzz with talk of a coup, followed later by one comment which pretty much summed up the prevailing uncertainty:  ”a bad sign when CNN is reporting ‘no coup’ in Pakistan”.

poster of benazir bhuttoPresident Asif Ali Zardari had also been covered by the amnesty, or National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), pushed through by Musharraf in an American-backed plan to allow Zardari’s late wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistan in what had been supposed to be a power-sharing agreement to provide both stability and democracy. While he is expected to come under pressure to step down, he remains protected by presidential immunity.

The Pakistan blog Deadpan Thoughts captured the immediate reaction to Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling, talking of  people in Karachi closing down their shops, racing home, and swapping notes on the phone as ”vicious rumors circulated of a coup”. 

“The legislative branch of our government has right now with this judgment directed the executive branch to prosecute itself,” it said.  “After all is said and done and we have torn apart this government, gone to mid term elections and arrived at the same crossroads in say another year or two at most, we must ask ourselves is democracy the best system for Pakistan? If it is then why does it never work for us?”

But beyond the drama, and the uncertainty of a situation where a democratic government is being asked effectively to turn on its own, what is the actual outlook for Pakistan?

gilani kayaniThe Pakistan Army will continue to call the shots when it comes to security and foreign policy but has shown no inclination to take over the running of the country. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who is considered to be close to the army, has established himself in a strong position in recent months, often overshadowing Zardari.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif could, in theory, take advantage of the political chaos to force a mid-term election. But with bomb attacks spreading through Punjab, Sharif’s own political stamping ground, it may not be the easiest of times to take over a national government committed to fighting Pakistan’s Taliban militants.

So the situation is perhaps less unstable than it might appear.

 The Daily Times calls in an editorial for “patience with the ways of democracy”.

“The logic of the verdict points in the direction of the culture of accountability having been strengthened, and the possibility of this momentum carrying on towards across-the-board accountability.”

Wishful thinking? Or the growing pains of a country trying to establish itself as a democracy?

(File photos: President Zardari and former prime minister Sharif; the late Benazir Bhutto; Pakistan army chief salutes the prime minister)

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