Divisions emerge in Pakistan

August 19, 2008 6:08:03 PM PDT
Just a day after Pervez Musharraf's resignation, Pakistan's governing coalition fell into wrangling Tuesday over restoring the judges he fired, exposing troublesome divisions that could disrupt picking his successor as president.Pakistanis have been urging the government to set aside political bickering and tackle extremist violence and economic downturn - challenges underscored Tuesday by a bombing outside a hospital and new battles between the army and militants.

But, as it has for months, the issue of judges revealed itself as a severe strain in the alliance between the two main parties that won February parliamentary elections after running against Musharraf.

The one-time military ruler was believed to be in his army-guarded residence near the capital, Islamabad. Analysts speculated Musharraf wants guarantees against criminal prosecution or forced exile, but Law Minister Farooq Naek said "no deal" had been reached.

The U.S.-backed leader reluctantly ended his nine-year presidency Monday in the face of the ruling coalition's move to impeach him in Parliament.

With the constitution requiring the election of a new president by Parliament within 30 days, the governing parties must quickly agree on a replacement or risk a damaging power struggle.

But the sharp disagreement over how to reinstate Supreme Court justices removed by Musharraf last year raised questions about the coalition's stability.

Musharraf purged the court in an attempt to avoid legal challenges to his rule, but the maneuver only deepened his unpopularity, propelling his rivals to victory in the elections.

It also turned the judges into controversial political players.

The ruling coalition was founded on a pledge to restore the justices quickly. But while former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has pushed hard to get them back on the bench, the leader of the coalition's biggest bloc, Asif Ali Zardari, has stalled their restoration.

After a four-hour meeting with Zardari on Tuesday, Sharif and his senior party lieutenants abruptly walked out, jumping into a convoy of cars without announcing any progress.

Ahsan Iqbal, a senior member of Sharif's party, said he was hopeful an agreement was days away, saying Pakistan could not afford the breakup of the alliance.

"It's not an option for any coalition partner to default on the understanding and agreement we have made, not only among ourselves but to the nation," he said.

However, Farahnaz Ispahani of Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party said only that it hoped to "be further along with this conversation" by Friday and that two smaller parties in the alliance also had to be on board.

"We will do it in a way we did with Musharraf. Everyone will be in agreement," she said, pleading for patience from the public.

The issue is fraught with political calculations.

The former Supreme Court supported efforts by Sharif, whose government was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 takeover, to return from exile last year.

But the justices also had agreed to hear challenges to a presidential order that killed corruption cases against Zardari and his since-assassinated wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto. The order was part of Musharraf's failed effort to form a pro-Western power-sharing deal with Bhutto.

In addition, the coalition must keep in mind the nation's lawyers, whose protests in support of the justices played a major role in eroding Musharraf's popularity.

The political squabbling comes amid deep uncertainty in Pakistan. Many people fear it is distracting the government from dealing with the threat of pro-Taliban militants along the border with Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, police said security forces backed by helicopter gunships and artillery pounded insurgents in the border area of Bajur, killing 11 suspected extremists and five civilians. A separate battle at a fort in the same region killed 13 militants and five soldiers, officials said.

Meanwhile, a suicide bomb attack killed 26 people and wounded 35 outside a hospital crowded with Shiite Muslims. The Taliban, a predominantly Sunni movement, claimed responsibility for the explosion at Dera Ismail Khan District Hospital.

Pakistan is also gripped by economic problems, including soaring prices, high joblessness and chronic electricity shortages.

With the ruling coalition expected to strip the presidency of much of its power, Pakistanis are putting the responsibility for righting the country's course on the new government.

"Price hikes, unemployment, law and order, justice," said Tariq Javed, a lawyer from Lahore, listing the problems that need to be addressed quickly.

Javed, who spent 10 days in prison in November after taking part in a rally demanding the restoration of judges, said the parties must put aside their differences.

Momin Khan, a grocer in Karachi, isn't optimistic. He expects that without Musharraf as a lightning rod, divisiveness will weaken the coalition - whose main parties fought bitterly over power in the decade before the 1999 coup.

"They'll find another fake issue to focus on. And then another," Khan said. "Politicians use the poor when it's convenient, to chant slogans, but really it's all about power."

In dealing with Musharraf, Sharif seems bent on revenge, calling for the former leader to be tried for treason for imposing emergency rule and ousting the judges - a charge punishable by death.

"He should not be allowed to leave," said Sadiqul Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif. "He should be tried for his crimes."

Replacement judges sworn in during the emergency granted Musharraf legal protections which, experts say, could be reversed with the help of restored judges.

Musharraf's supporters say he wants to stay in Pakistan despite concern that Islamic militants could try again to assassinate him for joining the U.S.-led war on terrorist groups. However, many observers predict he will seek to leave at least temporarily to let the furor die down.

On Tuesday, an aide to Musharraf said he planned to travel to Saudi Arabia on a religious pilgrimage and then return. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not Musharraf's official spokesman.

He said Musharraf also wanted to visit his brother, who lives in the United States.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters that if Musharraf were to ask for residence in the U.S., officials would consider the request.


Load Comments