On the afternoon of Tuesday 25 March, Yousaf Raza Gilani was sworn in as Pakistan’s 26th Prime Minister.
The ceremony was noteworthy for a number of reasons. For one, Gilani took his oath from President Musharraf, the same man who had him jailed on corruption charges seven years earlier. Gilani spent the next five years in prison for his troubles. Now Gilani’s coalition government is very publicly seeking to remove Musharraf from office.
Neither Nawaz Sharif nor Asif Ali Zardari, leaders of the two main coalition parties and arguably the most powerful political brokers in Pakistan, attended the ceremony. Their absence was interpreted as a snub to Musharraf’s Presidency. But perhaps the most glaring absence – although surely the least surprising – was that of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Supreme Court Judge whose suspension by Musharraf has triggered Pakistan’s most recent chain of events.
Pakistan’s legislative elections in February represented a high point for the nation’s democracy movement, with voters largely refusing to endorse fundamentalist Islamic parties – including a coalition of religious political parties in Pakistan’s generally more orthodox North Western Frontier Province.
But the biggest loser has undoubtedly been Musharraf, whose political allies were overwhelmingly rejected in February. No longer Chief of the Army and bereft of key Army stalwarts who have been forcibly retired or sidelined, Musharraf is now without a compliant Prime Minister and civilian government.
What precipitated this decline, ironically, was his attempt in March last year to dismiss Chief Justice Chaudhry and most of the Supreme Court bench for fear that it would rule his bid for re-election unlawful.
The attempted dismissals were soon softened into ‘suspensions’, following a groundswell of mass protest against the measure. But every stratum of Pakistan continued to protest – from lawyers battling police batons in their black suits, to politicians, retired Army servicemen and a great many of Pakistan’s ordinary citizens, who lined the streets and highways from Islamabad to Lahore creating a guard of honour for Chaudhry as he left for a public address on his suspension. Musharraf’s response was to detain thousands, many of whom were assaulted or tortured, and to ban all private televisions stations for daring to report it.
In September, a new Supreme Court stacked with Musharraf appointees held that the General could lawfully contest presidential elections due the following month. Musharraf won those elections in a landslide, but not before the opposition parties had been neutered by the absence of his two main political rivals, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. The public pressure on Musharraf remained unabated despite these apparent victories.
Eventually, in desperation, Musharraf called a State of Emergency, suspending the Constitution barely a month after his election victory. "I cannot allow this country to commit suicide," he explained. There were fears that the controversial "emergency" would indefinitely postpone the long awaited general elections, but it was eventually lifted and elections took place in February.
Through all these events, the US – upon whose coattails the rest of the West’s policies towards Pakistan generally ride – stressed the importance of retaining President Musharraf.
It was strange, to say the least, to witness the people of a poor, developing country taking to the streets and demanding democratic change while the US – long the self-proclaimed global champion of democracy – refused to support the movement.
Pakistan is a volatile country that is armed with nuclear weapons and a vast frontier region along its borders with Afghanistan and in the Kashmir region that remains a key base for Islamic militants, including Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Musharraf, a secular military man, affords the US a key regional ally in its War on Terror without the difficulties involved in negotiating with a democratic government. Whether by design or default, Washington feels that increased democracy in Pakistan – freely elected governments, an independent judiciary, a peaceful approach to resolving the conflict with the Taliban – is destabilising.
The US congratulated Prime Minister Gilani on his appointment but warned against policies that might further destabilise Pakistan. Many consider this a thinly veiled criticism of the new coalition government’s policy of seeking to negotiate with militants, including the Taliban, with which Musharraf and Washington have been in near continuous conflict since the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.
It is difficult to predict how Pakistan’s policies will change under an independent administration. Recent history teaches us to be sceptical of a government effectively controlled by Sharif and Zardari, two men whose names most Pakistanis equate with corruption and ineptitude.
When Musharraf removed then Prime Minister Sharif in a bloodless coup nine years ago, many in Pakistan celebrated. Few could have predicated that Musharraf would eventually become more hated than Sharif or his predecessor, the slain Benazir Bhutto, ever were. But 11 September 2001 changed the equation, and life for most Pakistanis has spiralled to unprecedented lows.
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