State of many emergencies
Friday August 10, 2007
Like a football manager declaring that he had the full confidence of the club chairman, President Pervez Musharraf's announcement that he was committed to holding free and fair elections in Pakistan was not so much meaningless as ominous. If, as his aides claimed, he has rejected the option of declaring a state of emergency, why had the same people flagged up the possibility so vociferously 24 hours earlier? Why did the general pull out of a peace conference in Kabul at the last minute? And what was the subject of the midnight conversation he had had with the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice? Even by Pakistan's standards, it was a hot and heavy day for an unpopular general clinging on to power.
Of all the threats facing General Musharraf - and they are now becoming a rather long list: an al-Qaida backed insurgency in Waziristan, pressure from US politicians, the Taliban, a suicide bombing campaign by Islamic fundamentalists, the impending return of two exiled civilian opponents, his re-election - the strongest challenge he faces is a judicial one. Last month, the supreme court delivered a momentous verdict by voting to reinstate the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whom Gen Musharraf had tried earlier to dismiss. In so doing, he transformed a court traditionally composed of pliant judges subservient to the dictats of the executive, into a fully functioning institution capable of making its own decisions. As a result, the court is blocked up with cases, each of which could thwart the political manoeuvres of the general. The supreme court even has the power to stop the state of emergency which Gen Musharraf has toyed with declaring.
One of the less visible dramas taking place yesterday was a court petition by the general's arch-rival Nawaz Sharif, who is seeking to return home after seven years in exile. It was the former prime minister's botched attempt to fire Gen Musharraf in 1999 that triggered the military coup that brought him to power. One motive for making such a public display of considering a state of emergency could be to send a shot across the bow to such rivals.
But a more obvious theory for the vacillation was that it was just another symptom of the disarray in which Pakistan's military leader finds himself. He is floundering around, unable to find a political remedy for his problems. Time is running out if he wants to find a constitutional means to fulfil his desire to continue both as head of the army and as president: the mandate of parliament expires in mid-November. It is one of five bodies that forms an electoral college which choses the next president. Under the constitution, the college has to do so 30 days before the current parliament's mandate expires. If the general waits for a new - and probably more hostile - parliament, his chances of re-election are doomed. So the political crunch is written into the calendar: between mid September and mid October. Unfortunately, every lever the general has considered pulling - such as a pact with Benazir Bhutto, the second exiled opposition leader, and one with whom he has held secret talks - would exert an equal and opposite force on the desired result. For the situation is so volatile that the mere return of Mr Sharif or Ms Bhutto to the country could in itself change the dynamics of the general's dilemma.
If there are few options for the general, there are even fewer for the US, other than to pray that their best friend in the region will muddle through. Washington's embrace may prove to be the general's undoing and it might be wiser to consider a power-sharing solution which bolsters, rather than undermines , the nation's institutions. The old dogma of Pakistan's army, that the country fares better under its generals than its politicians, is no longer true. If the general wants to survive as a political leader he should take off his uniform, put it in the cupboard and leave it there.