Within moments of being chosen Prime Minister of Pakistan's newly elected parliament on Monday, Yusuf Raza Gilani enacted the first of what is expected to be many reversals of President Pervez Musharraf's actions over the past year. And it is setting the stage for what could be an ugly showdown between the country's democratic forces and the dictator, who is also a major U.S. ally.
Declaring that democratic institutions will be the bedrock of his tenure, Gilani ordered the immediate release of the Supreme Court judges who had been detained since Musharraf declared emergency rule on November 3, when he suspended the constitution. Thirteen Supreme Court judges and 48 other judges had been detained amid a crackdown on civil liberties. "I order all the detained judges to be released immediately," Gilani told the gathered parliamentarians after the national assembly voted the majority Pakistan People's Party stalwart in as premier. "Our slain leader Benazir Bhutto sacrificed her life for the cause of democracy, and now it is our responsibility to strengthen the democratic institutions in line with the aspirations of common people."
Moments later, supporters of the detained judges, which included Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, stormed the judges' residential colony in Islamabad and tore away security barricades and barbed wire, shouting "Go, Musharraf, go!" In his first appearance since his detention, Chaudhry appeared on the balcony of his house and calmly thanked the nation for the efforts to free him. His benign manner, however, could be misleading. If Chaudhry and his Supreme Court are reinstated as the new coalition has promised it will be Musharraf may find himself out of a job.
On Tuesday, a grim-faced Musharraf administered Gilani's oath of office at the presidential palace. For Gilani it was a moment of triumph in 2001 Musharraf imprisoned the longtime Bhutto supporter for nearly five years on corruption charges. After the ceremony Musharraf told state-owned television that he would "always extend my fullest cooperation" to Gilani and the new government. But he may find that the new government has other plans.
Gilani is not the only member of the new power elite who has a grudge against Musharraf. Asif Ali Zardari, who heads the populist PPP, which dominates the ruling coalition and got the most votes in the February 18 elections, blames Musharraf in part for the assassination of his wife, two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League, which was the second largest vote gainer, was deposed by Musharraf in 1999, and forced into exile.
The new political setup appears doomed to failure, says Lahore-based political analyst and TV talk show host Haroon ur Rashid. "It seems that working between Musharraf and the new government will not be smooth. The dynamics of emerging politics may compel PPP and its allies to isolate Musharraf." If the new coalition can get a two-thirds majority, which it has demonstrated with the choice of Gilani as Prime Minister, it could move to impeach the President.
But Parliament may not even have to go that far. Earlier this month, when the major vote-winners in the parliamentary elections gathered in the resort town of Murree to hammer out a coalition government, they agreed that within 30 days of convening, the new government would restore the judiciary to its pre-November 3 status. Before it was dismissed, the Supreme Court was debating the legitimacy of Musharraf's October 7 election as President, citing a constitutional breach. If the court reconvenes in the same formation, it is likely to take up the case again, and could declare Musharraf's presidency invalid. "The Supreme Court will decide whether his election was legitimate or not," says Rashid. "Certainly, he took the wrong legal course to reelect himself. So, he has to face the music."
The potential end of Musharraf's tenure has raised alarm bells in the international community, particularly in the United States, where President George Bush has often called Musharraf his best ally in the war on terror. Many saw Musharraf then a general, as well as President, until he gave up his army post late last year as a one-stop shop for fighting terrorism in the lawless tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan that are thought to harbor senior members of al-Qaeda. In neighboring Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai offered cautious congratulations to the new Prime Minister in a statement, but tempered his support with an admonition calling "terrorism and extremism a serious problem against stability and development in the region," and hoping that "the new Pakistani parliament and Prime Minister achieve huge success against this destructive phenomenon."
Leaders of the new government have decried Musharraf's overly militaristic approach toward fighting Islamist insurgents, calling for a review of the country's role in the U.S.-led war on terror, and saying that Musharraf's methods have only made things worse. The Urdu daily newspaper Islam echoed their statements, observing in an editorial on Monday that the "Pakistani nation got nothing except suicide attacks and destruction everywhere in the country from the military operation in tribal areas," and called for a new policy more compliant with ground realities.
The new leaders are moving in that direction. "Since 9/11 all decisions were made by one man," former Prime Minister Sharif told reporters after a meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on Tuesday. "Now the situation has changed, a truly representative parliament has come into being. Every decision will be presented before the parliament, [and] they will review Musharraf's policy in the last six years," he said, according to Agence-France Presse. Both Sharif and Zardari have suggested negotiating with some of the militants in order to come to a more peaceful resolution of the problem, without resorting to force. "We want to see peace in every corner of the world and we want to see peace in Pakistan also," said Sharif. "[But] we do not want that in order to give peace to others we turn our own country into a murder house."
But not everyone is convinced that Musharraf's departure and negotiating with the militants is going to solve all of Pakistan's problems. "Musharraf should not leave the presidency immediately," says Islamabad-based businessman Khalid Ibrahim. "Otherwise, this [new] leadership can play havoc with the war on terror and economic prosperity of the country by negotiating with the terrorists. World powers are comfortable with Musharraf and they want him to stay. If he goes maybe they will stop giving financial aid to Islamabad."
Even as Gilani and his new colleagues in power reverse Musharraf's anti-democratic moves, they may find it wise to preserve his stability-seeking measures. Figuring out how much of Musharraf's legacy to undo may be Gilani's biggest challenge as the country's new Prime Minister. With reporting by Ershad Mahmud/Islamabad