Pakistan’s Sharif seen isolated after ‘U-turn’

March 29, 2010

Nawaz SharifFormer Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is used to being Pakistan’s most popular politician, but lately he has become the country’s most criticised.

The government had planned to push through the parliament this month a reform package that would have stripped President Asif Ali Zardari of his sweeping powers,  but that seems unlikely now after Sharif abruptly raised new objections on Thursday. Sharif was the one who loudly and actively campaigned against his arch-rival Zardari.

It was a dramatic turnaround.  Just hours before a parliamentary committee comprised of all political parties, including Sharif’s, was due to sign the reforms package, Sharif threw a political bombshell by raising objections over the the appointment of judges and the renaming of the North West Frontier Province.

It is the first time in the history of Pakistan, which has been ruled by the military for half of its history, that a civilian government was pushing a comprehensive constitutional reform package through the parliament — with the consultation of the opposition — to undo provisions introduced by dictators to tighten their grip on power.

Now there is hardly a television talk show, a newspaper editorial or article where Sharif’s stance is not being slammed.

“Nawaz betrays democracy,” the Daily Times front-paged a banner headline on Friday along with picture of a grim-faced Sharif.

“Absolute disappointment”, “about-face” and “U-turn” were how the other newspapers described Sharif’s announcement.

Sharif’s party finished second in the general election held in February 2008, but he saw his popularity surge last year after he forced Zardari into accepting his demand that Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other judges sacked by former military President Pervez Musharraf be restored to the bench.

He also won a political battle against Zardari by scuttling government plans to pass a controversial law granting amnesty to Zardari, several of his top aides, government figures and thousands of political activists over corruption.

However, Sharif’s “U-turn” has fuelled conspiracy theories across the country, with one simple question being asked: “Why?”

“Nawaz Sharif’s bombshell on Thursday had everyone scrambling for an explantion,” Dawn newspaper said in its editorial.

The daily News on Monday quoted an unnamed Zardari’s political aide as saying that they believed Sharif might have raised objections at “somebody’s else behest”.

The aide did not name any “precise reason, individual or institution that prevailed upon Sharif to take (the) U-turn,” but the paper said Zardari and his party’s “aversion” to Chief Justice Chaudhry, who struck down the amnesty law for Zardari and his associates, was well-known. However, a spokesman for Sharif rejected the speculation as “scandalous”.

However, there are other explanations as well.

Dawn said Sharif raised the bogeyman of the appointment of judges to cover up a split in his party over the renaming of the mainly ethnic Pashtun NWFP.

Pashtun nationalists want a name representing  the dominant population but Sharif’s party, whose
power base lies in the central Punjab province, fears that such a move would damage its support in non-Pashtun parts of NWFP.

Whatever the reason for Sharif’s out-of-the-blue stand, many people think the former prime minister stands isolated on the issue.

“The kind of criticism you are facing has never focused on you before,” a reporter said to Sharif at a news conference in Islamabad on Monday. “Are you feeling totally isolated?”

“No, we are not isolated,” he replied. “Whatever the stand we have taken, we have done in the national interest.”

(File photo of Nawaz Sharif)

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