Thursday, March 19, 2009

Who Rules Pakistan? by Farhana Ali

The celebration in Pakistan is understandable. The New York Times and international media show men dancing in the streets to honor the return of a dismissed Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Backed by the Sharif brothers, the lawyers’ movement and the long march worked. But the use of street power to force the Pakistani government to acquiesce could spell trouble in the coming weeks.

I spoke today by phone to a senior commander in the Pakistani military, who wished to remain anonymous. He expressed his concern about the future of Pakistan, should the Chief Justice reopen cases that have been left dormant for over a year. The officer stated, “If the Chief Justice decides to put Musharraf on trial, then the military will see this as interfering in their affairs. The military would never like to see their former chief of the army ridiculed publicly. Also remember that the Chief Justice will always be skeptical about Zardari [the current President] because he reinstated him under pressure from the Army. I can’t imagine that Zardari will tolerate the Chief Justice for long; then there is the case of the missing persons which the Chief Justice has been actively pursuing…The position of the Chief Justice has become a puzzle and would keep causing instability. You will see this in a couple of months.”

What the media and public sources do not reveal is that the same Chief Justice who has been rallying against President Musharraf supported the General’s coup in 1999, which forced Nawaz Sharif into exile. It is ironic that Chaudhry and Sharif are now forging a partnership, if only for political expedience and short-term gains. “This is a marriage of convenience,” said the military officer. The odd alliance also has revealed that the civilian leaders are unfit to govern, unless a coalition is formed. An email today from Dr. Hassan Askari-Rizvi, who writes regularly on political trends in Pakistan stated, “There are several negative aspects of this development which will have implications for politics in Pakistan. The fact that a street agitation had to be launched with a threat to paralyze the government exposes the weakness of the parliament which was irrelevant to the whole issue.”

Not surprisingly, Pakistan is known for its political paralysis and power struggles. It is increasingly clear that President Zardari, who supported a February 25th decision to ban the Sharif brothers from elected office, conceded to pressure from Army Chief Kiyani. In reality, the military is the true gatekeeper of Pakistan. The question remains: will the reinstatement of Chaudhry be viewed as a triumph for justice or a blow to the civilians’ grip on power? The events of the coming weeks will be telling.

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