Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
A comment recently by Asif Zardari, the powerful head of the Pakistan People’s Party, that the country’s next president could be a woman has set off speculation that he might propose the name of one of his sisters, both members of his party, to succeed President Pervez Musharraf.
What better way to burnish Pakistan’s credentials as an enlightened democracy than have a woman as head of state at a time when the power of Islamist militants is growing, especially in the vital northwest region where they have been burning down schools for girls.
Besides, installing either Faryal Talpur or Azra Fazal Pechucho as president would help tighten Zardari’s grip on power with a handpicked president and prime minister, as The Pakistan Policy Blog notes. The name of National Assembly speaker Fahmida Mirza has also been mentioned as another possible woman candidate.
But then again, and reflecting the pressures on them, Zardari and coalition partner Nawaz Sharif might turn to the troubled North-West Frontier Province, choosing a candidate from there as one way to counter the expanding influence of the Islamists. One of the frontrunners would be Asfandyar Wali Khan, president of the Awami National Party, a regional group with liberal credentials, based in the NWFP. Candidates from Baluchistan, the other region where a low-key insurgency has raged, have also been mentioned in reports
Given how little many people in the west seem to know about Pakistan — at most that it has nuclear weapons and, possibly, Osama bin Laden; rarely that it has 165 million people (not too far off three times the population of Britain) with individual day-to-day challenges of earning a living and bringing up children like anywhere else – it’s encouraging to see the range of debate in the U.S. blogosphere after President Pervez Musharraf announced his resignation.
Here are just a few that caught my eye, in no particular order, and with apologies in advance to anyone I’ve mislabelled as U.S.-based:
While Pakistan and indeed much of the world has been transfixed by the political power play that has seen President Pervez Muaharraf go, a refugee crisis is unfolding in its troubled northwest.
The numbers fleeing escalating fighting between the Pakistan Army and militants holed up in Bajaur on the border with Afghanistan vary but they are all huge. The Daily Times said that the provincial government had set up relief camps for 219,000 people displaced in the latest wave of fighting.
UPDATE – President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation has been greeted with jubilation from supporters of the ruling PML-N and PPP parties (see picture right), and sparked a rally in the stock market. But reading through the comments on this and other blogs, I can’t see any clear theme emerging, with some praising and others condemning Musharraf’s legacy, some regretting and others welcoming his departure, and many fretting about the future.
Amid the feverish speculation about when, how and where President Pervez Musharraf will go, analysts are already looking beyond to the future of Pakistan in a post-Musharraf era. One theme stands out: while the consensus appears to be that the Pakistan Army will not step in to save Musharraf, it might well intervene in the not so distant future if it believes it needs to save the country.
“Musharraf’s departure will highlight the problems that confront the country, which is in the grips of a food and energy crisis. Inflation is out of control,” writes Tariq Ali in the Los Angeles Times. ”The price of natural gas, used for cooking in many homes, has risen by 30%. Wheat, a staple, has seen a 20% price hike since November 2007 … According to a June survey, 86% of Pakistanis find it increasingly difficult to afford flour on a daily basis, for which they blame their new government.”
Pakistan’s fractious coalition has agreed to begin impeachment proceedings against President Pervez Musharraf but can it really pull it off ? Do they have the numbers — the two-thirds majority required from the National Assembly and Senate combined? Impeachement is like a trial, so what charges will they bring against him?
And then there is the army, still arguably the most powerful institution in a country of 160 million people battling Islamist extremism, tension on its borders with India and Afghanistan where U.S. led coalition forces are hunkered down, and facing an economic meltdown.
A report in the Financial Times that Saudi Arabia has agreed in principle to defer payments for crude oil sales to Pakistan worth $5.9 billion has raised speculation about what it is looking for in return.
The Daily Times suggests that the Saudis are buying political stability in Pakistan, which may include throwing a lifeline to President Pervez Musharraf. “Apparently, the immediate impact will be on PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif’s politics of confrontation with Musharraf, which will have to be diluted significantly in line with ground realities,” it says. ”The Saudis, like the Americans, want a stable transition to civilian rule and no confrontation between the politicians and the military, including Musharraf.”
“There can be few countries where the art of the coup is so finely honed as in Turkey…” So starts this Reuters blog by Ralph Boulton about the Turkish Army.
It’s well worth a read for anyone interested in comparing Pakistan and Turkey, two Muslim countries which have both struggled to reconcile secularism, democracy, Islam and domination by the military — and all the more so given President Pervez Musharraf’s own admiration for Turkey.
Reuters Paris chief correspondent Crispian Balmer tells me that he said the ruling Pakistan People’s Party had established a working relationship with Musharraf after February elections in which the president’s political allies were defeated.
The future of President Pervez Musharraf grows more opaque by the day. At its simplest level, it seems that while many people think he should step down, few want to see him forced out in a way that would divide and damage the country.
In the latest stories highlighting the currents and counter-currents swirling around the former army general, Musharraf lashed out at “rumour-mongers” for suggesting he planned to quit, while President George W. Bush telephoned him to pledge his continued backing. Meanwhile disgraced scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, has begun speaking out against Musharraf by complaining he was unfairly made to take the rap for selling nuclear secrets. That A.Q. Khan now feels safe to speak after four years under house arrest is seen as one of the most telling indications of the times turning against Musharraf.