Pakistan's New Prime Minister

Democratic Turning Point

The election of Pakistan's new prime minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani represents a turning point in the country's recent history. Pakistan is facing a new democratic beginning. Thomas Bärthlein comments

Prime minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani (photo: AP)
Gilani has effected the release of several judges placed under house arrest after President Musharraf declared a state of emergency.

​​Pakistan is placing great hopes in its newly elected government, following more than eight years of military rule. Astounding things have happened over the past few weeks: the murdered Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League – bitter rivals throughout the 1990s – have agreed to form a grand coalition.

The two parties will sit around the same table in the cabinet, and they have succeeded in winning over practically all politicians who came into question. The result is control over all of Pakistan's provinces and a solid two-thirds majority in parliament.

Basic consensus among democrats

Nawaz Sharif and Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari emphasise their harmony and command of the situation at joint appearances. For the first time, Pakistan seems to be experiencing something akin to a basic consensus among democrats, which politicians are placing above their own interests. It was not least the murder of Benazir Bhutto that highlighted all the party leaders have in common, including their responsibility for democracy.

There was admittedly an unseemly tug of war over the office of prime minister within the People's Party, but all that now appears to be forgotten, and the successful candidate is widely respected. Particularly the de facto party chairman Asif Zardari, whose reputation was previously not overly positive, has astounded all his critics with his statesmanlike manner.

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (photo: AP)
A majority for Musharraf's opponents: the Pakistan People's Party and the Muslim League gained a majority for a grand coalition at the election on 18 February.

​​While some observers are now predicting a power struggle between the new government and the president, that particular tug of war may well have been won already: President Musharraf has been pushed further and further out to the margins of the political action over the past few weeks. On Monday, he was forced to stand by and watch as even state television broadcast the anti-Musharraf slogans in parliament.

He has also had to put up with the elected but not yet acting Prime Minister Gilani deciding to release Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry, whom Musharraf had toppled and placed under house arrest – and with the authorities rushing to do so in a case of "pre-emptive obedience". It is only a matter of time until the old judges return to the courtrooms.

Time up for the lame duck?

And then it will be time to take a close look at the legality of Musharraf's election as president. It's up to Musharraf how long he wants to remain in office as a "lame duck" under these circumstances. But the new political leadership is probably not losing any sleep over the matter, considering its overwhelming majorities.

The new government has inherited a difficult situation. The main problem over the coming months will be Pakistan’s security, with suicide bombers posing a threat across the country. So it is very much in the Gilani government’s own interest to take a tough stand against terrorism.

Better times ahead

Fears from abroad are unfounded. Particularly Nawaz Sharif, however, will no doubt refuse to be seen as a puppet for the USA – which could prompt conflicts between Washington and Islamabad. But in the long term, it is in the interest of the international community for the Pakistanis themselves to decide how to combat terrorism – for example not by having people simply "disappear" into secret service prisons.

Up to now, the West has allowed Musharraf a quasi-monopoly and his own choice of means in the fight against terror. This approach has plainly failed: Musharraf has misused this "mandate" for his own purposes, even fanning the flames of terrorism in many areas. Things can only get better.

Thomas Bärthlein

© Deutsche Welle 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire.

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