Pakistan's Political Crisis

Sidelining Sharif

Even by the standards of Pakistan's turbulent politics, the high drama surrounding Nawaz Sharif's brief return to Pakistan would be hard to beat. Irfan Husain reports

Nawaz Sharif on the way to Pakistan on 9 September 2007 (photo: AP)
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, center, talks on his mobile phone aboard a Pakistani International Airlines flight to Islamabad, in London's Heathrow airport

​​Nawaz Sharif was a politician who had been prime minister twice, but who was roughed up, bundled unceremoniously into a waiting plane, and flown to Saudi Arabia.

Despite expectations, his followers were unable to break through police check-posts to receive their leader, and the government was able to contain the demonstrations.

Disputed exile agreement

Elected in 1990 and 1996, Sharif was not allowed to complete either term by the army. Last ousted by General Musharraf in 1999, he chose exile in Saudi Arabia rather than being jailed, possibly for life, in Pakistan. Under the terms of the disputed agreement of this exile, Sharif had agreed to refrain from political activity for a decade.

Although he denied that he had willingly entered into any such agreement, he was forced to retract when the Saudi head of intelligence arrived in Pakistan to confirm the terms, and urge Nawaz Sharif to keep his word.

What had prompted him to announce his return was a Supreme Court verdict pronouncing that any agreement obtained under duress was null and void, and under the Constitution, a Pakistani citizen could not be prevented from returning.

The general's scorn

His decision electrified a country already abuzz with talk of a possible deal between ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and General Musharraf, army chief and president of the country.

Since he took power, he had been heaping scorn on both politicians, and declaring that he would not drop charges of corruption against either of them.

photo: AP
Short-lived joy: Supporters of Nawaz Sharif celebrate their leader's decision to come back to his country, on 30 August in Lahore, Pakistan

​​But behind the scenes, contacts had been established between Ms Bhutto and the general, aimed at a power-sharing deal that would serve to broaden the government's base. Both the British and the Americans were keen to broker such a deal, as they felt this would enable Musharraf to take on the Taliban on the Afghan border more effectively.

In return for her support, Benazir Bhutto demanded that all corruption charges against her and her husband, Asif Zardari, be dropped. In addition, she wanted the repeal of a law passed under Musharraf that limited individuals to two terms as prime minister.

To make these backroom negotiations more palatable, she has told her supporters that they are aimed at creating political space, as well as for ensuring fair elections (due within the next 6 months).

Five more years for the "General President"?

But the crucial election is for the presidency. Musharraf is keen to get re-elected without giving up his army post. He realises that once he is a civilian, his successor as army chief might dump him.

Ideally, he would like to be elected by the present assemblies, without shedding his uniform. But democratic parties are in agreement that they will not accept a serving general as president for another five years.

As talks between Musharraf and Ms Bhutto were making progress, Sharif's sudden decision threw a spanner in the works. His victorious return to Pakistan would upset Musharraf's (and the Americans') calculations as he remains the most popular politician in Punjab, Pakistan's biggest province. His implacable opposition to Musharraf ruled him out as a possible partner in any deal, so he had to be sidelined.

Musharraf's show of force

Days before his return, there was fevered speculation about the impact he would have on the political scene. Government circles went into overdrive to contain the fallout. In the event, some 20,000 policemen were deployed, and thousands of Sharif's supporters as well as other opposition figures were arrested in a vast pre-emptive operation.

In fact, this was the biggest show of force by the Musharraf government in the last eight years. Had he shown as much enthusiasm in cracking down on extremists and jihadist elements, Pakistan and the region might have been more peaceful today.

On the face of it, Sharif's exile to Saudi Arabia seems a clear contempt of court in view of the Supreme Court's judgment that stated that he should be allowed to return without 'let or hindrance'.

The big question is how vigorously the court will react to the government's move. Should it demand that he be produced, and issue contempt notices to the top officials of the government, it will embark on a course of confrontation that could lead Pakistan towards martial law.

The power of the judges and lawyers

Given the court's independence and activism, there is every prospect of the judges taking on Musharraf. And as the recent judicial movement showed, lawyers and judges enjoy much respect and support in the media and civil society.

But Musharraf has shown that he is more than willing to use force to put down any challenge to his authority. This refutes the argument that he would be willing to share power with Ms Bhutto if both parties come to an agreement. With his military mentality, he is a firm believer in the 'unity of command', a phrase he uses very often.

So while for Washington, Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto may be the dream team, the reality is very different.

Irfan Husain

© Qantara.de 2007

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