Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Snake vs. Tiger!

Asif Zardari, the Wily Snake from Sindh...

Faces Off Against...

...the Tiger of Punjab, Nawaz Sharif...

..In a No Holds Barred Battle...

... to Force Pervez Musharraf From Office!

.. The Prize: Bragging Rights as the Savior of Pakistani Democracy!

If Pakistani politics honored its striking kinship with the rivalries, bombast, and chair-throwing brio of professional wrestling, it might be able to attract U.S. attention to what’s going on over there.

Pakistan’s democratic crisis may well come to head in Islamabad on Thursday.

That’s when the “Long March” of lawyers and political activists led by deposed Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudry and Supreme Court Bar Association President Aitzaz Ahsan reaches the capital to stage a sit-in in front of parliament and demand restoration of the judiciary.

Interestingly, in contrast to America’s heartfelt interest in seemingly hopeless causes such as humanitarian intervention in Burma and independence for Tibet, this important and broadly supported exercise in people power in one of the most populous and strategically vital nations in the world is attracting little attention in the United States.

Maybe the problem is that the designated flag-bearer of freedom, Asif Zardari’s PPP, isn’t reading from the democratic script and our least-favorite political force, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, is joining the sit-in with the demonstrators.

In Pakistan’s general elections on February 19, the public handed the opposition parties an unambiguous mandate to take power and finish the job the lawyers’ movement had begun: restore the judiciary and remove terminally unpopular president Pervez Musharraf from office.

Once it won power, the PPP didn’t deliver.

Just the opposite, in fact.

Instead, the new government—the government of the PPP and Asif Zardari—is refusing to support the lawyers’ march, has hauled in 40-foot shipping containers to block the approaches to parliament and set up sandbag positions, and, in a worrying harbinger of what methods might be brought to bear to derail the protests, raised the specter of “terrorist attacks” as a justification for obstructing the march.

In February, by contrast, the way appeared clear. All that was necessary was a parliamentary resolution restoring to their previous positions the members of the judiciary who had been unconstitutionally removed on November 3 because they were poised to challenge Musharraf’s unconstitutional re-election as president.

Prior to the general election, the leaders of the two leading opposition parties, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower and head of the PPP and Nawaz Sharif, head of the PML-N, met and concluded the “Murree Accord” promising that they would restore the pre-November 3 judiciary within 30 days of taking office.

Zasrdari promptly reneged on the deal, first playing semantic games: thirty days should be counted from the swearing in of the cabinet, not the speaker of the national assembly; then thirty days after the provincial assemblies took the oath of office; finally he simply said he “didn’t believe in timetables”.

Explanations—mostly leaked from the Zardari camp—abounded as to why he didn’t want to restore the judiciary. They included: intense pressure from the United States to protect its client Musharraf; longstanding resentment at the ill-treatment had meted out to Zardari in the past by unfriendly judges; profound concern over an excessively independent and activist judiciary.

A less-flattering explanation was that Zardari had availed himself of the good offices of the post-November 3 judiciary multiple times to quash cases against him running the gamut from corruption to murder, so that a newspaper could, with perhaps a touch of irony, describe him as “the cleanest man in Pakistan”.

Matters reached a nadir of sorts in April as the new government applied to the complaisant judiciary to strike down the requirement that candidates for the National Assembly be college graduates. This appeal was not so much triggered by the PPP’s commitment to democratic egalitarianism as by the embarrassing revelation that Zardari—whose political options including succeeding to his wife’s NA seat in a by-election—had lied about his educational achievements and, indeed, claimed a degree from a college that didn’t even exist.

However, the most likely explanation for Zardari’s inaction on the judiciary issue is his addiction to political maneuvering.

Zardari is an unpopular and allegedly unsavory character who owes his position as co-chairman of the PPP to his wife’s political will, and not election by the PPP rank-and-file or its central committee.

His overriding priority has been to discredit and marginalize the numerous political forces inside Pakistan whose credibility and popularity surpass his own.

Zardari’s first key test as the PPP leader was to humiliate and sideline Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who was not only Bhutto’s number two and anticipated political heir (he was beside Bhutto when she died in Rawalpindi, while Zardari was overseas in Abu Dhabi); as the head of the PPP’s electoral organization, he was the legal choice for prime minister. Fahim was dumped and a compliant placeholder, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was put in the prime minister slot instead.

Zardari then turned his attentions toward the lawyers’ movement, led by PPP member Aitzaz Ahsan, which is responsible for much of the reputation that the post-Bhutto PPP enjoys as a principled, popular, and national force, and not just a Sindhi-controlled political machine.

Zardari openly belittled the lawyer’s movement and Ahsan and rather ludicrously claimed that it was the PPP that had enabled the lawyer’s movement, when it was clear that the national uproar over Musharraf’s war on the judiciary beginning in March of 2007 had driven the president’s approval down into the 30s and compelled him to accept Bhutto’s return under US mediation at the end of the year.

Zardari’s fingerprints may or may not be on an extremely nasty effort by friends of Musharraf to discredit the movement to restore the judiciary and minimize its political impact by using provocateurs to foment violence in incidents that can be blamed on the lawyers, but his defense of the lawyers has been half-hearted at best.

Zardari professed that it was the PPP, and not the lawyers, that was the sole arbiter of the fate of the judiciary. He then spent the next few months energetically muddying the waters by floating numerous proposals and finally proposing a complex and probably unworkable grab-bag of constitutional amendments as his “solution” to the judiciary problem.

The most dangerous challenge to Asif Zardari’s political pre-eminence is, however, Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the PML-N, whose personal and electoral symbol is the tiger.

When the US arranged for Bhutto (and Zardari) to return, Saudi Arabia insisted that Sharif be allowed to come back, too. Sharif has had traditionally close ties to Saudi Arabia—he spent his exile there after Musharraf ousted him from the prime ministership in a coup—and it’s possible that the Saudis were simply looking after a capable and useful asset.

However, unlike Bhutto and Zardari, Sharif is not beholden to the United States and has little interest in confronting Islamic extremists and al Qaeda elements inside Pakistan primarily in order to save the West’s bacon in Afghanistan. Riyadh may have been favoring Sharif as part of its plan to try to achieve an accommodation with extremism and redirect the region toward a more conventional—and cooler—great power rivalry with Iran.

In any case, Sharif reappeared in Pakistan with a new image (he invested in hair plugs and a new wardrobe to compete with the ultra-charismatic and telegenic Bhutto) and a progressive, nationalist message that included whole-hearted support for civil society and civilian rule as epitomized by the lawyers’ movement.

Sharif was already a powerhouse in Punjab—his home province and Pakistan’s demographic, political, and economic heart—and his new message resonated nationwide and even within the PPP. Zardari was forced to accept an electoral alliance with Sharif’s PML-N, which enshrined in the Murree Accord the central demand that the pre-November 3 judiciary be restored. The PML-N roared to victory in Punjab, winning control of the provincial government, a large number of seats in the National Assembly, and important portfolios in the cabinet as a member of the ruling coalition.

Sharif, admittedly a late convert to the merits of an independent judiciary (while he was prime minister, his supporters organized a rent-a-riot against the judiciary to punish it for some rulings he didn’t like), has played his democratic cards astutely while consolidating his dominant position in the critical province of Punjab.

When all the Murree Declaration deadlines had passed, Nawaz Sharif pulled his people out of the cabinet. However, he didn’t enter the opposition and pledged that the PML-N would vote with the government on key issues, retaining the PML-N’s progressive credentials while sparing it the onus of bringing down the popularly-elected civilian government.

This unavoidably left the PPP as the dominant party in the ruling coalition.

And that’s the way Asif Zardari wanted it. Indeed, it was rumored that his delays and evasions over the last four months on the judiciary had no higher purpose than to force Sharif to quit the coalition.

Now, Zardari held the political initiative and could maximize and aggrandize the sole political credit for removing Musharraf from office.

So far, so good.

Signs are that Musharraf’s support in the Pakistani military and in Washington have fallen away, and the prize is within Zardari’s grasp.

But things are still a little tense.

Despite numerous hints to Musharraf not to let the door hit his behind on the way out of the presidential palace, he’s still hanging on.

Unsurprisingly, Musharraf wants a political indemnity that shields him from criminal charges related to his unconstitutional acts.

Unsurprisingly, Nawaz Sharif is letting Musharraf—and Zardari--twist in the wind by insisting that any indemnity is unacceptable.

Most worryingly, the lawyers’ movement has finally lost patience with Zardari and his unwillingness to follow through on the popular mandate for restoration of the judiciary, and has begun its long-threatened Long March to Islamabad to demand that parliament reinstate the judges—a move that is seen as ineluctably leading to Musharraf’s impeachment or resignation.

The PML-N is supporting the lawyers’ march wholeheartedly, and has vowed to join the lawyers in a sit-in before parliament.

This places the PPP in the unenviable position of siding with a few small coalition partners and the hated PML-Q (Musharraf’s faction) in opposing the march.

On Wednesday, the government was forced into an embarrassing climb-down, with Prime Minister Gilani’s advisor stating awkwardly, “We will not put up any sort of resistance”, and agreeing to let the lawyers rally in sight of parliament while cordoning off the area right in front of the building to forestall the efforts of the ubiquitous “miscreants” who wreak so much havoc in Pakistani politics.

So Zardari’s window of opportunity—during which he can claim a clear political victory by forcing out Musharraf, instead of absorbing a high-profile and embarrassing political setback by explicitly blocking the lawyers’ movement—is sliding shut.

He might still put it off.

In fact, he has to.

He’s alienated the core elements of the PPP, the lawyers’ movement, the PML-N, and a pretty wide swath of public opinion with his antics.

If Zardari comes out of this looking like Musharraf’s defender, the opponent of progressive forces inside Pakistan, and, most importantly, a loser, his party could fragment into factions that would reject his leadership and perhaps even align with the PML-N.

This is a matter of political survival for Zardari, and one can expect him to battle with the considerable resources of intelligence, guile, ruthlessness, and power at his command.

The battle between the snake and the tiger—it’s not over yet.

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