February 28, 2008 / 8:56 AM / 12 years ago

Doubts linger over Pakistan's new political dawn

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The two historically rival parties that won Pakistan’s general election have vowed to work together to restore democracy, but some analysts doubt they will stick together for long.

The opposition trounced the unpopular President Pervez Musharraf’s party in the February 18 parliamentary elections, with assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s party winning the most seats, but not enough to rule on its own.

The party of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, came second.

Bhutto and Sharif were bitter rivals in the 1990s when they alternated as prime minister. Both were accused of corruption and served two terms over a tumultuous period that ended when then army chief Musharraf ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup.

But Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), are vowing to work together to rid politics of the old military-bureaucratic establishment and set up true constitutional democracy.

It would be the first time in Pakistan’s history that the two main parties have come together.

“This is the first time they are both trying to diminish the significance and importance of the establishment, clearly the military, and to that extent they want to diminish the powers of the president,” said newspaper editor Najam Sethi.

“So there’s consensus on that, but as soon as that is resolved, how to deal with Musharraf, I think they will revert back to wanting to hog the show and this whole business of national reconciliation will be taken over by party politics.”

While both Sharif and Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who has been leading her party since her assassination on December 27, have stressed ridding politics of the establishment, they differ on Musharraf’s fate.

Sharif has called for Musharraf to go, but Zardari has been less explicit, saying the new parliament should decide if it can work with him.

It is also not clear if Sharif’s party will take cabinet posts in a PPP-led government or merely support it from outside while running the provincial government in Punjab, Pakistan’s richest province and home to half its 160 million people.

“NOT JUST ‘GO MUSHARRAF GO’”

Whatever happens with the government, some analysts say the two parties have both suffered at the hands of the establishment and have learnt from that.

They are now determined to stick together to implement a Charter of Democracy that Bhutto and Sharif agreed to in 2006 which sets out constitutional amendments and other reforms aimed at enshrining democracy, said political analyst Nasim Zehra.

“They are getting together on what I would call Project Democracy,” Zehra said. “They are keen to implement these agreements and that is reason enough to keep them together.”

“It’s not just about battling an individual, it’s not just ‘go Musharraf go’,” she said, a reference to chants at demonstrations calling for the president’s ouster. With the economy facing myriad problems, the new government is unlikely to have much of a honeymoon and that might be why Sharif declines to be part of it, analysts say.

Annual inflation at its highest in over a decade, a hefty trade deficit, pressure from high international oil and food prices, and domestic energy shortages are weighing on the economy.

“It’s not going to be a piece of cake,” said Umbreen Javaid, head of the politics department at Punjab University.

“Any government is going to get a bad name because things are very bad — economically, the energy crisis — and it’s not going to be resolved in days, it’s going to take years.”

The longevity of the alliance depends on how long the leaders put the country before party interests, she said.

“Because they are the two main political parties, there’s going to be a power struggle, but not immediately. I don’t see that,” said Javaid.

As well as economic problems, the new government will have to handle relations with the United States, which is keen to see Pakistan focus on tackling militancy even though the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism is deeply unpopular in Pakistan. Sethi said Sharif was already looking ahead to the next election. “He’s betting that the PPP is left to cope with the difficulties of the transition and he can sit back in Punjab and let the federal government take the rap,” Sethi said.

“He thinks that in a new election he will have a much better chance of capturing Islamabad.”

But Zardari is dismissing the skeptics.

“It will last longer than anyone can imagine,” he told Reuters on Wednesday when asked about his alliance with Sharif.

Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by David Fox

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