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Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan from exile in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, nearly eleven weeks after having been forcibly deported by the Musharraf administration. A lot of water has flown through the Indus in the meantime. He returns to a nation in deep political crisis.
After winning what has been widely criticised across Pakistan as a farcical election, Musharraf had been awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on the challenge against the legitimacy of contesting the elections while still in uniform. Apprehending a ruling in favour of the challenge from a bench led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, his chief detractor in recent years, he suspended the constitution, declared a nationwide emergency, imposed martial law and fired the judges citing as excuses the threat to Pakistan's security from terrorism and judicial 'activism'. Private television channels were temporarily blacked out, orders limiting news coverage were promulgated, and police crackdowns on many journalists, politicians, human rights activities and lawyers conveyed Musharraf's real intentions. The beleaguered President then went on to appoint to the apex court a group of judges loyal to him which in turn quashed the challenge and paved the way for his assuming office. What followed was a national outrage, a period of nationwide unrest and street demonstrations in protest from human rights groups, political parties, hard-line Islamists and lawyers which continues unabated. Musharraf's decision has also attracted worldwide condemnation, rebuke from his American mentors demanding a quick return to constitutional law, and suspension from the Commonwealth.
The US-brokered deal between former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf to share power after the parliamentary elections was threatened due to Ms Bhutto's realisation that the movement would pass her by unless she took a principled stand against the imposition of emergency. Some political critics think she has already lost her claim on any high moral ground by entering into a deal with the President. Sharif in the meanwhile has returned to a tumultuous welcome and called for an all-party boycott of the forthcoming parliamentary elections that seems to be gaining momentum, thus trapping Ms Bhutto between a rock and a hard place. Sharif has also called for the immediate return to constitutional law and reinstatement of the judicial bench sacked by Musharraf which has received universal backing.
It is indeed true that Pakistani army units have faced increase in hostilities from Al-Qaeda affiliates in the border regions and about 300 soldiers were captured and held hostage in the mountainous Swat region and later exchanged for some captured terrorists. There have also been a few suicide attacks against the government and army targets. However, these have not been of such intensity that demands clamping an emergency. Chief Justice Chaudhry who had been suspended once in the recent past was later reinstated under public pressure. However, Musharraf went too far when he impulsively chose to sack the judges and suspend the constitution to suit his own interests that triggered public outrage. The real intention of holding on to power at any cost was clear and people refused to be fooled.
Musharraf finally and reluctantly renounced his uniform and took oath as the Civilian President of Pakistan for the next 5 years on 29 November. He also promised to lift the state of emergency within 3 weeks and restore Pakistan's constitution ahead of parliamentary elections. It wasn't however a spontaneous and willing decision on his part. He has been under tremendous pressure during the last few weeks from the public, the press, political parties, the US and lawyers who were antagonised by his high handedness in dismissing the judges of the Supreme Court. Musharraf hasn't proved to be as astute a political player as he hoped. After seizing power through a military coup in October 1999, he has had to cope with accusations from various quarters about the illegitimacy of his leadership. He sought an election by referendum in 2002 which was allegedly rigged. A vote of confidence from the electoral college in 2004 had enabled him to extend his rule until November 2007. Notwithstanding his initial attempts to subvert the democratic processes, the people, especially the educated, politically moderate Pakistanis, saw him as a benevolent authority figure who was sincere in solving problems of the grassroots and for a time his actions seemed to justify their trust. His review of tribal laws unfavourable to women, efforts to stabilise the economy and to improve relations with India won him some public support initially. However, this was soon eroded by a series of miscalculations on his part generating a long-simmering resentment towards his military dictatorship. He was seen as a despot who at first held out the promise for reform, progress and restoration of democracy, but then reneged on each one of them. In the process he steadily squandered his support base. He managed for a while to keep the two major political parties out of the power equation but in the process let the religious right fill the vacuum. However, being tethered to the Americans in their campaign against global terrorism also cost him the support of this group. He now finds himself isolated from both the liberal forces and the religious extremists and hated by all erstwhile allies. His recent political manoeuvring including the deal with Benazir has been widely seen as a desperate move to hold on to power at any cost. His reluctance to discard the uniform is understandable as that was his last insurance against deposition. His current predicament is almost entirely of his own making. However, in the event of Musharraf's early departure, the outcome that may await Pakistan and the world is quite unthinkable. Musharraf is still the best bet to prevent religious extremists and obscurantists from taking over before democracy is restored and that is one reason why he will still continue to get support from the army and the US. If Pakistan's nuclear arsenal fell into the hands of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban through these elements, the fallout will be too horrific to contemplate. It is clear, however, that liberal forces want Musharraf out sooner rather than later. American support to military dictatorships and puppet governments has alienated a large section of the nation's population. It is therefore incumbent on the Americans to work together with the major parties, the army and Musharraf to ensure a smooth transition to democracy. This is the solution that the nation overwhelmingly appears to prefer, thus putting an end to the army's stranglehold over the last several decades.
WATCHPOINT: How will Pakistan survive this crisis? Can a compromise deal between all players be worked out to ensure a smooth transition?
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