March 23, 2009 / 8:22 AM / 9 years ago

SCENARIOS: Pakistan's buds of optimism amid risks

(Reuters) - President Asif Ali Zardari called for national reconciliation in a Pakistan Day message on Monday, as he sought to mend fences with the opposition after defusing a political crisis by restoring the country’s top judge.

The reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry as Supreme Court chief justice a week ago averted a looming violent street confrontation.

But tension has lingered between Zardari’s party and its main rival, the party of former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, in particular over control of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and politically influential province.

Pakistan’s Western allies fear political upheaval distracts the nuclear-armed country from fighting spreading Islamist militancy and reviving its flagging economy.

REASONS TO BE HOPEFUL

— Confrontation has given way to reconciliation, and Pakistan’s two biggest mainstream political parties are at least communicating again, even if they can’t be friends.

— A weakened Zardari has survived the crisis over the judge but could eventually be forced out if he lost the support of his party. As long as it happened within the constitution, it shouldn’t pose the dangers mass agitation would.

— Central government rule of Punjab is likely to be ended soon and Sharif is expected to get back control of the province. The Supreme Court will review a bar on Sharif and his younger brother, Shahbaz, holding elected office, raising the prospect Shahbaz Sharif will be Punjab chief minister again.

— Nawaz Sharif, whose support base is conservative religious nationalists, lacks numbers in parliament to destabilize the coalition led by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party. The next general election is due in 2013.

— Sharif strengthened his standing by getting Chaudhry reinstated, but he cannot use street power too often. Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and Pakistan’s Western allies would frown on politicians working outside the parameters of parliamentary democracy without just cause.

— A constitutional package will be worked on that could remove some of the unpopular president’s sweeping powers and strengthen the prime minister’s role.

— Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is friendly with Sharif, who appreciated his efforts to break the deadlock over the judge, and this augurs well for his government.

— On an even bigger canvas, Pakistan’s educated middle class, in the shape of the lawyers’ movement, has for the first time prevailed over vested interests in the political arena. That is positive. Any leader who stands in the way of building stronger institutions or better governance in Pakistan should now realize he can be called to account.

— The Pakistani media played a big part. But some sections are very partisan, favoring Sharif.

THE RISKS TO STABILITY

— There is no bigger risk than spreading Islamist militancy. It represents a serious threat to civilian-led democracy, and the experience of the Musharraf years should have taught people the military alone cannot provide a remedy. The September attack on Islamabad’s Marriott hotel and this month’s on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore were measures of the growing danger.

— Meanwhile, the United States is considering expanding its covert war in Pakistan from the Waziristan region into Baluchistan province, the New York Times reported last week. A wider U.S. theater of operations could risk fuelling Pakistan’s internal conflict.

— Some analysts also raise concerns about Sharif’s party regaining power in Punjab because they believe he panders to Islamists and has taken a tolerant attitude about the presence of jihadi groups and their charity fronts in the province.

THE RESTORED JUDGE

— Chaudhry could once again complicate politics. He is a maverick who trod on many toes in the establishment during his earlier tenure and could do so again. He could be too politicized and could feel he owes Sharif.

— But it is likely Zardari obtained assurances to protect himself from judicial activism before agreeing to reinstate Chaudhry.

— Zardari could create problems for himself if the government was vulnerable to accusations of large-scale corruption and misgovernance. A hostile media could whip up a campaign that might end up in court.

— Whether Zardari also obtained assurances to protect Musharraf needs to be clarified. Musharraf would ideally need parliament to grant him some kind of indemnity for actions that violated the constitution.

— The army and the United States would prefer the old general be left to enjoy his retirement and Pakistan to move on.

Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Jerry Norton

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