Pakistan’s newly minted coalition government, in office only since 25 March 2008, is presently lurching from one crisis to another. Its political core, the partnership between the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) ended - for the moment at least - on 13 May 2008 when Sharif withdrew his quota of ministers from the federal cabinet over the ostensibly arcane issue of how to restore to office the senior judges sacked under President Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of emergency on 3 November 2007.
But the real problem between the PML-N and the PPP (the party led until her assassination on 27 December by Benazir Bhutto, and now effectively headed by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari) goes far deeper than the high-profile "judges’ issue". Its root is the longstanding rivalry for power between the two formations, symbolised by the personal contest for power between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif themselves. These figures long alternated in office as Pakistan’s prime minister, sharing the spoils of what became - until Musharraf’s first seizure of power in October 1999 - a virtual two-party state.
For almost two decades, the duo had taken turns in office, with each of their two stints as prime minister being cut short as a result of military intervention. Before the rigged elections of 2002, Musharraf set up his own faction of the PML, and gave it the title of the "Q league" after the Quaid-e-Azam, or "leader of the people", Mohammad Ali Jinnah. But as soon as the reasonably fair election of of 18 February 2008 was held, this party of opportunists and turncoats (the "PML-Q") was reduced to forty seats in the 342-seat national assembly.
Now, the tensions between the PPP and PML are surfacing, with the question of the judges’ restoration framing thier dispute. Pervez Musharraf had feared that chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was about to declare illegal his re-election as president, secured on 6 October via a constitutionally dubious manoeuvre. In a pre-emptive strike, Musharraf sacked around sixty judges of the supreme court and the four provincial high courts who were viewed as independent. This followed Musharraf’s attempt in March 2007 to get rid of Iftikhar Chaudhry through a combination of political pressure and legal fiat - which succeeded only in triggering a legal crisis, including months of demonstrations across the country. The protests of this movement, spearheaded by lawyers but also supported by a wide spectrum of opposition parties, dominated much of 2007.
The February elections produced (a low turnout notwithstanding) both a clear rebuff to Musharraf and a widespread desire to return to civilian rule. Within days, the two major leaders agreed to form coalition governments both at Pakistan’s political centre of Islamabad and in the key province of Punjab. They also agreed to reinstate the sacked judges within a month.
This surprising harmony was not to last. The month has passed, and despite marathon negotiations between Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif - in Dubai and London as well as Islamabad - an impasse over modalities continues to mar relations between the two. Sharif has removed his party’s ministers from the federal government, while promising to support the PPP in parliament. However, he reserves the right to go into opposition in the event the judges are not restored.
In an effort to prevent an outright break, Zardari has not filled the vacated ministerial slots, and his PPP continues to be part of the Punjab government. But this arrangement is unlikely to last, given the latest crisis precipitated by the appointment (with effect from 17 May) of the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer. In the Pakistani constitution, provincial governors are appointed by the president to represent the federal government. While they do not play an executive role, they can block legislation, and in case "president’s rule" is declared after a provincial government is sacked, they assume all administrative authority. Sharif says he was not consulted over Taseer’s appointment, and has deep misgivings about the intentions behind this move.
The fact is that Taseer is an old PPP loyalist who left the fold to enter business. In the process, he has become a media baron, owning the English-language Daily Times, the Urdu daily Aaj Kal, and a TV channel. He also owns a large number of very successful enterprises, and there are obvious concerns of potential conflicts of interest.
In light of this latest provocation, there is every possibility that Sharif will lead his party into opposition. In such an eventuality, the PPP will form a coalition with the PML-Q, the NWFP-based ANP, and the MQM from urban Sindh. This arrangement will expose the PPP to considerable blackmail from its smaller partners; but above all, it will allow Pervez Musharraf to return to centre-stage.
Sharif, who has never been known for his commitment to an independent judiciary (the supreme-court building was attacked by his supporters during his last stint in power), is seen as using the issue to settle scores with Musharraf. His calculation is that as soon as the ex-chief justice is restored, he will hear several pending cases, and declare Musharraf’s re-election illegal.
The offstage conflicts
This is precisely what Asif Ali Zardari does not want. In case Musharraf is declared an unlawful president, all the acts performed by him after his re-election could also be declared illegal. Thus, fresh elections could be ordered. Sharif’s party, having done far better than anybody expected him to do in the February polls, could well gain an outright victory in the next elections.
The fact is that the movement for a free judiciary resonates very deeply among ordinary Pakistanis. Additionally, Musharraf is hugely unpopular. By seeming to throw him a lifeline, Zardari is taking a lot of flak in the Pakistani media. His argument is that although Chaudhry and his colleagues were illegally removed, their replacements did nothing wrong by taking the oath of office. Pakistan’s constitution currently provides for a supreme court composed of seventeen judges, and this number would rise to twenty-five if both lots of judges have to be accommodated. This, Zardari argues, would need a constitutional amendment.
But such legalistic debating-points do not impress many people. They view Zardari as protecting Musharraf and keeping Chaudhry off the bench out of self-interest. On 5 October 2007, in order to allow him and his slain wife, Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistan, Musharraf issued the National Reconciliation Ordinance that effectively absolved politicians of all criminal charges framed between 1990 and 1999. Although hundreds of cases were thus dropped, the biggest beneficiary was seen to be Asif Ali Zardari, known as "Mr Ten Percent" in an earlier incarnation. If Chaudhry is reinstated, he is sure to review the legality of this controversial law.
The so-called lawyers’ movement is now threatening to erode the democratic gains Pakistan has made over the last few months. Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, is the barrister who defended Iftikhar Chaudhry and won his case. He is a senior member of the PPP, but his decision to lead a new "long march" campaign for the deposed judges’ reinstatement puts him at odds with his party and the government.
These Byzantine twists and turns of Pakistani politics have left the real issues festering in the background. With food and fuel prices spiralling, people are getting impatient with their elected leaders. Moreover, this government’s determination to cut a deal with Islamic militants in the tribal areas spells trouble for Pakistan’s crucial relations with the United States. A separate peace with Baitullah Mehsud and his Pakistani Taliban, while reducing the level of terrorist attacks within the country, would give these holy warriors a secure base to launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. Already, the Pakistani army has withdrawn troops from several key positions in South Waziristan as part of the deal.
It is partly to prevent such an unravelling of western military policy along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that Washington is still supporting Musharraf in Pakistan’s version of Snakes and Ladders.