Pakistan's military has always had a simple strategy for maintaining a tight reign on power: keep the country's two major political parties at each other's throats and leave the real business of running the nation to the men in uniform. That method, which has seen the military rule Pakistan for more than half of its 60-year history, imploded Sunday with the announcement that the left-leaning Pakistan People's Party (PPP), led by the recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari, and the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML), led by Bhutto's onetime arch-rival Nawaz Sharif, will form a coalition government following significant victories in last month's parliamentary elections.
The PPP won 120 seats in the new 342-seat National Assembly, followed by Sharif's party with 90. The former ruling party aligned with President Pervez Musharraf got just 51. The formation of a new coalition could lead to the downfall of president, a longtime U.S. ally. The two parties, which traded power four times in 11 years before Sharif was ousted as Prime Minister by Musharraf, then a general, in a 1999 military coup, have promised to reinstate senior judges that had been dismissed by Musharraf last year. (Musharraf's move against the judiciary was seen as a bid to circumvent constitutional prohibitions against his re-election as president.) Samina Ahmed, of the International Crisis Group, calls the joint declaration between the two parties a victory for Pakistan, and for democracy. "For eight and a half years, parliament has been declared redundant by a military dictator," she says. "No more. This is the first time in Pakistan's history that the PML [which has historically been backed by the military] has come together with the opposition in coalition against a dictator."
Sharif and Zardari spent the past few days at the resort town of Bhurban in the Himalayan foothills to hammer out an agreement on how to tackle the issue of the judges. Until this weekend, the PPP had been reluctant to call for the reinstatement of the Supreme Court, saying it should be up to the new parliament to decide. Sharif's party, which came in second in the elections, wanted the reinstatement immediately, saying party members would not take oaths of office under a president they deem illegitimate. Together, the two parties decided to join forces in a coalition with the primary aim of reinstating all judges within 30 days of the start of the new goverment. "We are bound together in the spirit of democracy," Zardari said at a news conference announcing the decision.
A reinstatement of the judiciary will have severe repercussions for Musharraf. For more than a year he has hounded the independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudry, dismissing him last March on what many call trumped-up charges of corruption. The Supreme Court threw out the charges and reinstated Chaudhry three months later. But when it looked as if the court was preparing to rule against Musharraf's election as president on November 3, he dismissed the Supreme Court, suspended the constitution and declared emergency law. The emergency was lifted six weeks later, but Chaudhry remained under house arrest, as did scores of high court judges and President of the Supreme Court Bar Association Aitzaz Ahsan.
Ahsan, who spearheaded a powerful lawyer's movement that kept the judiciary at the forefront of voters' concerns as they went to the polls, is now free. Although he is a lifelong member of the PPP, Ahsan worked with both parties to bring about the accords. "This is a big blow to Pervez Musharraf. What this means is that the majority of representatives in Parliament today are committed to the restoration of the judges." says Ahsan. "He is completely isolated now. He is a criminal and he has to be prosecuted.
Musharraf has said that he will work with the new government, but now the question appears to be whether the new government will work with him. He has little more than a week to call parliament together. Once convened, the new coalition members say they will reinstate the judiciary, launching a chain of events that could see Musharraf's downfall in just a few months. But Musharraf loyalists and analysts point out that the embattled president has escaped from many such situations, relying on clever lawyers, handpicked judges and the support of both the U.S. and the military.
Not this time, says Ahsan. "The people have spoken," says the activist, referring to last month's elections, and now that the two parties have come to agreement, Musharraf's usual military tactics of divide and conquer are no longer effective. Though Musharraf was not running, the election was largely seen as a referendum on his rule. "So it is best for him to accept the reality, to accept the restoration of the judges and to live by the constitution," says Ahsan, who calls the agreement a great victory for his campaign to reestablish rule of law in Pakistan. "But it is just the beginning," he adds. "We have got to see the game to the end, to the last whistle. That is when the deposed judges are back in their seats and dispensing justice."
There is one potential stumbling block. The military must finally decide to abide by the will of the people, rather than Musharraf, who stepped down as Army chief only on November 28. He can turn to one of his few legal recourses a constitutional amendment that allows him to dissolve parliament and call for new elections and hope that the military will back him on it. But Ahmed points out that it might be too late for the veteran strategist. "The point here is that if Musharraf were to dismiss the people's verdict, it would require the backing of the military. Will the military be willing to back him now?" It certainly could, as it has so often in the past. But now that the country's two parties are uniting to oust the unpopular leader, the battlefield has changed. "The writing is on the wall," says Ahmed. "It should be seen as the end of any political future for Musharraf, but will he read it that way?"