Musharraf’s Second Coup

Musharraf’s Second Coup

By NAJAM SETHI

If Gen. Pervez Musharraf is trying to ensure the stability of Pakistan, he certainly has an odd way of going about it. His promulgation of a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) and a State of Emergency over the weekend have upset the delicate political transition needed by the country amid the return of Benazir Bhutto, and the planning for elections three months hence. To make matters worse, the subsequent arrests of largely peaceful moderate politicians, a purge of the judiciary and gagging of the press have alienated the very forces of moderation and democracy Pakistan needs most.

General Zia 

As a result, Pakistanis now find themselves living in the sort of repressive state they have not experienced since the 1980s, during the rule of the last full-fledged military dictator, Gen. Zia ul Haq. All private news channels were taken off the air on Saturday and new laws were unfurled to restrict fundamental rights, silence the media and impose punishments of up to three years for criticizing the military. In the last 72 hours, the regime has used its new powers under the provisional emergency to flush the Supreme Court and the high courts of all “hostile judges” and rope in pliant replacements.

[photo]
In this still from state TV, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf addresses the nation after the imposition of a state of emergency, Nov. 3, 2007.

The PCO lies at the crux of this weekend’s political turbulence. It is unconstitutional because it suspends part of the constitution without parliamentary approval. It lays the political system at Mr. Musharraf’s mercy and whim. The contents of the emergency which follows on the basis of the PCO shed a great deal of light on why he has taken this drastic step.

In Mr. Musharraf’s telling, his prime motivation is deteriorating law and order amid acts of terrorism. He has accused the judiciary of being a major culprit in log-jamming the executive and undermining the war against extremism. Out of 11 effective clauses in the proclamation of emergency, eight refer to the negative role played by the judges and the judiciary in challenging the military’s use of force in the war against terrorism, the executive functioning of government and the economy. The most significant clauses in the PCO prohibit the courts from challenging the president, prime minister or anyone exercising authority on their behalf.

But the reality may be somewhat different from the law-and-order rhetoric. Mr. Musharraf was faced with a challenge to his recent re-election as president before the Supreme Court, turning on whether he could hold the post of president while still in uniform at the head of the army. Such a challenge is now disallowed under the PCO. And because Mr. Musharraf is also purging the judiciary of judges who will not swear to uphold the new constitutional order, he can be sure the courts won’t complain about the new restrictions on their powers. In the last 48 hours, he has sworn in a new chief justice and a few dozen other judges, and has detained the judges who have been removed.

It is also noteworthy that under the new legal regime, Mr. Musharraf can extend the term of the various parliaments for up to a year. Their terms had been scheduled to end later this month, and general elections should have followed within three months. But thanks to the declaration of emergency, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz now says that elections can be postponed. This makes perfect political sense for Mr. Musharraf. Given widespread public resentment against him, his ruling Pakistan Muslim League had been fearful of its chances at the polls and was pressing the president to postpone them.

Ms. Bhutto has described the emergency declaration as a “mini martial law” or “second coup” by Mr. Musharraf, who first acceded to power in a coup in 1999. His presidency, which was likely to be struck down by the old Supreme Court, has been confirmed and upheld by the new PCO.

Two factors will play a critical role in determining what happens next. The first is the extent to which rights activists — particularly lawyers — can continue their vocal protests despite the repression. The second will be the role played by Ms. Bhutto’s People’s Party (PPP), which lays claim to the largest vote bank in the country.

Lawyers, civil society groups and opposition parties are gearing up to launch protests across Pakistan and to boycott the courts. These groups comprise powerful anti-American religious elements, weak moderates and liberal nongovernmental organizations. The balance of power is held by the liberal People’s Party and the conservative ruling Muslim League, which consider the religious parties their natural ally. So it is profoundly troubling that with the electronic media blinded and the administration freed from accountability, Mr. Musharraf is using the police and paramilitary forces to arrest opponents, instead of clinching a power-sharing deal with Ms. Bhutto to enlarge the moderate mainstream and push back the tide of radical political Islam — which benefits from the repression of the state.

As for Ms. Bhutto and her party, the original U.S.-brokered “deal” that enabled Ms. Bhutto’s return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile last October envisaged a relatively free and early election. She was supposed to share power after the elections with Mr. Musharraf, on the assumption that a liberal civil-military coalition government would be able to better tackle the war against religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. That is in danger of shipwreck, now that Mr. Musharraf is inclined to postpone the elections, sideline the PPP and crush all resistance against his authoritarianism.

And because it is so unpopular, Mr. Musharraf’s latest move puts Ms. Bhutto in a particularly tough spot. She can’t afford to appear soft on Mr. Musharraf, even though the two have been preparing a power-sharing agreement. So she’s put in the position, whether she wants to or not, of mustering her own newfound popularity to put him on the mat.

A day after her arrival and the suicide bomb attack on her, she accused the government of harboring people who wanted her eliminated, and pointed the finger at a retired Interservices Intelligence (ISI) brigadier who is a close friend of Mr. Musharraf and heads the Intelligence Bureau. Now, she has rejected the PCO and emergency declaration, and demanded a national consensus government to oversee the country until the general elections can go ahead in January, as originally pledged by Mr. Musharraf.

Mr. Musharraf wants Ms. Bhutto to desist from joining hands with the opposition parties and fueling the protest movement. She wants him to hold quick elections and give her a level playing field. In a sign of how much damage the weekend’s events have done to the reconciliation process, the two reportedly have reverted to talking only via secret intermediaries, because she doesn’t want to be seen negotiating with an unpopular military dictator, while he doesn’t want his Muslim League to get nervous at further overtures to “the enemy.”

The U.S., European Union and the rest of the international community have condemned the provisional constitutional order and have demanded a restoration of full-fledged democracy via free and fair general elections. But the U.S. still sees the military under Mr. Musharraf as the best bet in the war against terror.

That may turn out to be a mistake if Mr. Musharraf insists on going it alone. His appeal is fast fading. If he doesn’t hold free elections quickly and agree to share power, Ms. Bhutto may be constrained to pull out of their earlier deal under public pressure. If that were to happen, the Musharraf regime would become more isolated and straitjacketed than ever. With an upsurge in anti-Americanism, religious radicalism and civil strife on the cards, the prospects of Pakistan solely under Mr. Musharraf would then become questionable.

Mr. Sethi is editor of the Friday Times and Daily Times in Lahore, Pakistan.

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