The US and Britain are pressing Pervez Musharraf’s victorious opponents to drop their demands that he resign as president and that the country’s independent judiciary be restored before forming a government.
In a strategy some Western diplomats admit could badly backfire, the Bush administration has made clear it wishes to continue to support Mr Musharraf even after Monday’s election in which the Pakistani public delivered a resounding rejection of his policies. “[The US] does not want some people pushed out because it would lead to instability. In this case that means Musharraf,” said one Western diplomat.
Officials say the policy is driven by concern about possible instability in the aftermath of the election in which the president’s parliamentary allies were soundly beaten. In such circumstances US and its Western allies are urging the election’s winners – the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N)- to quickly move forward and form a coalition that includes all “moderate” elements.
But along with Mr Musharraf’s future, the reinstatement of sacked Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry and other Supreme Court justices – sacked by the president when they refused to ratify his imposition of a State of Emergency last November – has rapidly emerged as the most contentious issues in the aftermath of Monday’s vote, as the PPP and PML-N negotiate to form a coalition government. Mr Sharif, whose party secured the second most number of seats, built his campaign around the reinstatement of Mr Chaudhry and has repeatedly insisted Mr Musharraf should stand down.
Last night an aide to Mr Sharif, who is due to meet today (THURS) with PPP leader, Asif Ali Zardari, confirmed there had been pressure to drop its demand for Mr Chaudhry’s return. “The suggestion has been there from Western countries for some time. In fact it was raised by [a senior British official] when he met Mr Sharif in London. [But] we are not willing to compromise on our stance. We feel it would be against the interest of the Pakistani people.”
This week senior US officials have already met with Mr Sharif and the other leading players in Pakistan’s unfolding political drama, urging an inclusive transition towards democracy. Yesterday morning, a US diplomat based in Lahore spent two hours with Aitzaz Ahsan, leader of the lawyers movement, laying out the US position.
Mr Ahsan, who has been under house arrest for three months, declined to detail the contents of his conversation with the diplomat, but he said: “There is no way other than to reinstate the judges…We are not going to let this pass. We will not let it be accepted as a norm.”
Since the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration has pursued a controversial policy in which it has given billions of dollars and considerable political support to Mr Musharraf, who is considered a vital ally in the so-called war on terror. The policy has been pursued despite criticism of Mr Musharraf’s human rights record and amid claims of hypocrisy over the US’s backing for a military dictator who seized power in a military coup while purportedly promoting democracy.
Officials admit that in the aftermath of such a decisive election its decision to stick by Mr Musharraf and its urging of his opponents to work with him – even with him serving in a reduced role – could be seen as interference and carried with it high risks.
Yet they say the threat of instability and the over-present threat of violence in Pakistan requires the various groups to form a coalition of moderate parties rather than becoming “fixated” on Mr Musharraf’s immediate future or the restoration of the judiciary. Another Western diplomat said: “The important thing is that a stable government can be formed.”
The West’s approach has already drawn criticism. Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, said: “[How is it that] the US believes…Musharraf can be the guarantor of any sort of stability when he is the source of instability?”
Mr Musharraf has insisted that he has no intention of resigning. His spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, said yesterday that he intended to work with the new government and that he would serve out his term that expires in 2012. “The people on Monday didn’t vote to elect a new president,” said the spokesman. “In fact, they participated in the elections to elect the new parliament.”
Clouds gather as ‘sulky’ Musharraf retreats to bunker
Despite US support, president is isolated in battle for power
In some ways life has changed little for Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, since Monday’s election. The retired general still trots out for afternoon tennis, aides say, and enjoys a game of bridge a few times a week. In the evenings he pulls on a cigar and, although he can’t admit it, nurses a glass of whisky.
Visitors still call to see him at Army House, the marble-floored Rawalpindi residence of Pakistan’s military chiefs, even though he retired three months ago. “It has been renamed Presidential Lodge,” said spokesman Rashid Qureshi. “The normal routine is functioning.”
But outside clouds are gathering. The spectacular rout of his Pakistan Muslim League (Q) party at the polls has shorn the retired commando of his political base, leaving him isolated and exposed.
“He’s been sulking,” said a senior party official. “He’s retreated into a mental bunker, which is not healthy. He thinks everyone is out to get him and only listens to a small circle. It’s a dangerous mindset to be in at this point in time. He could decide to hit back.”
Musharraf’s bad mood stems from the prospect of Nawaz Sharif, the rotund prime minister from Punjab he ousted in a 1999 coup and banished to Saudi Arabia a year later, returning to power. Sharif, who controls the second biggest party in parliament, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) has vowed to oust Musharraf at the earliest opportunity. “The nation has given its verdict. The sooner he accepts it the better,” said Sharif.
But Musharraf, targeted at least twice by al-Qaida assassins, has a knack for survival. And he has at least one loyal friend left. Shortly after the electoral drubbing George Bush paused on a trip to Africa to pay warm tribute to him. He sounded less enthusiastic about Sharif’s ascent. The message filtered quickly through the lines. In Washington the state department urged the opposition to work with Musharraf. In Islamabad American diplomats engaged in frantic talks with the opposition.
Senior officials from all parties told the Guardian they were trying to broker a deal that would ensure Musharraf stays in power. The PML (Q) official said his party was being pressured by US embassy officials hoping for a coalition between their party with Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s party, now led by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari.
“The Americans want a German-style grand coalition including the PPP,” he said. “They want Musharraf to stick around, even if it’s a diminished Musharraf.”
British officials have been more coy, bristling at suggestions they are following the American lead. But many Pakistanis believe Whitehall is singing from a hymn sheet drawn up in the White House.
“The British are masters at using their language; the Americans are more crude. But in the end, it comes down to the same thing,” said Nadir Chaudhri, a Sharif aide.
The western obsession with Musharraf seems puzzling. Since he resigned as army chief in late November most of Musharraf’s power has drained to his successor, General Ashfaq Kayani. Diplomats unanimously praise the former spychief as a sober and sympathetic commander.
The problem is Sharif, who although not elected to parliament is still the power behind the PML (N). Although he went through a makeover during his exile in Jeddah and London – polishing his English, acquiring a hair transplant and a wardrobe of Saville Row tweed jackets – diplomats fear he cannot, or will not, deliver on their greatest concern: hunting al-Qaida and Taliban militancy.
Critics suspect Sharif of being a closet “fundo”, or fundamentalist. They recall his infamous attempt to crown himself commander of the faithful while prime minister in 1998, and point to his family’s conservative background. His close links with Saudi Arabia, which provided a royal jet and bulletproof Mercedes for his return from exile, have also caused some concern, particularly about possible leakage of nuclear technology.
But supporters and some political rivals say such fears are misplaced. A former Sharif minister said that during a 1998 meeting with Bill Clinton in the White House Sharif signed off on a secret plan to assassinate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, using a CIA-trained force of crack Pakistani troops. Earlier he permitted an FBI team to capture a terrorism suspect and bundle him into a plane bound for the US.
“The whole idea of Sharif being the odd man out in the war on terror is utter nonsense,” said Chaudhri, his aide. “There’s no one more committed to rooting out extremism than him.”
Still, Bush, whose has given more than $10bn to Pakistan since 2001, is more at home with Musharraf.
“He’s very loyal. It’s almost a tribal thing,” said one aide. To some degree, Musharraf has reciprocated. Yesterday the New York Times reported that the president has allowed the CIA to set up a secret base inside Pakistan from which unmanned Predator aircraft can attack al-Qaida fugitives in the tribal areas. If Musharraf goes, officials worry, so could the permission to strike at will.
But many Pakistanis are angry at what they see as American meddling, even among pro-western parties.
“The US has to understand that the parties now elected to parliament are not stooges of Musharraf. They are genuinely elected people,” said Senator Enver Baig, of Bhutto’s PPP.
On the streets there is a tangible sense that the boundaries of power are blurring and Musharraf’s aura is fading. Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a cigar-chomping politico who was a Musharraf favourite, was among 19 former ministers to lose their seats in Monday’s election.
A few days later he held a press conference at a five-star hotel, visibly smarting from the loss and threatening to set up his own party.
“Politics is very crude. You have to deal with the situation,” he told the Guardian.
Speculation is rife that other PML (Q) cronies will defect to Sharif’s party – from whence many of them came – in droves.
On Thursday hundreds of lawyers and civil society activists tried to storm the barricades outside the Islamabad house of the imprisoned former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Lawyers in suits, ties and gardening gloves ripped back coils of barbed wire, only to be confronted with a phalanx of policemen armed with teargas and water canon. “Go Musharraf, go!” chanted the crowd – a mantra that has haunted the president since his botched attempted to fire Chaudhry last March. Musharraf despises the judge even more than he does Sharif; in a recent interview he described him as “the scum of the earth”.
But unlike previous protests, the police did not baton charge or thrash the protesters – at least not very much – and only a few teargas canisters were fired, which landed half-heartedly in a nearby garden. When the crowd dispersed peacefully, one lawyer shook hands briefly with a policeman in riot gear, who smiled back.
“Things have changed,” said the organiser, Athar Minallah. “Today Musharraf is obviously not in power, and that is the beauty of democracy.”
But Musharraf’s fate also rests on the ability of the fractious opposition to unite. In a country of giant egos and troubled history, that’s no sure thing. A complex game of blackmail and manoeuvre is underway.
On Thursday afternoon government lawyers reinvigorated a corruption case against Zardari, a move seen as a shot over the bow in his government-forming talks with Sharif. But that night the two men appeared in public, looking chummy on a pair of gilt-edged thrones, announced they would “cooperate” to form a government against Musharraf.
Exactly what that means is unclear. Sharif’s party wants to form a provincial government in Punjab but leave the national administration to the PPP, perhaps hoping to win an election outright in one or two years’ time. Zardari wants a genuine coalition.
“We are still in the opening moves of this chess game,” said Ayaz Amir, a newly-elected parliamentarian.
By roping in a few smaller parties the two leaders could cobble the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach Musharraf. The end could come by March 8, the date by which election officials estimate the new parliament will first sit.
Musharraf says he is going nowhere. “His term runs for five years. He knows there’s a vast number of people who appreciate and love him for what he’s done,” said Qureshi, his spokesman. “After all he’s done for this country, he would feel a little disappointed I guess.”
In his self-vaunting autobiography, published last year, Musharraf wrote that “a true leader will always be loved by his people”.
Supporters say if it comes to an impeachment motion, he may not fight to the end. “Frankly I’m not sure if he has the stomach for Custer’s last stand. I don’t see the fire in his belly any more,” said a party official.
A new home, complete with security bunkers, is under construction on the edge of Islamabad. Whether he needs to move in there any time soon should become clearer in the coming weeks.