Picking Up the Pieces in Pakistan

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Pakistan People's Party / AP

From left, Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Nawaz Sharif

Pakistan's five-month-old coalition government has fallen apart a week after it forced Pervez Musharraf to step down as President. Dispelling any hope that Musharraf's departure would inaugurate an era of political stability, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced today that his minority party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), would pull out of the troubled government, retreating into opposition of the majority, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), led by Asif Ali Zardari.

Sharif blamed ongoing disputes with Zardari, who had earlier promised to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, along with other judges who were deposed by Musharraf in 2007. At a packed news conference in the Pakistani capital, Sharif sounded crestfallen at Zardari's decision to backtrack on their agreement, which they had signed in early August. "The judges should have been reinstated on Aug. 19, the day after Musharraf's resignation," Sharif said, adopting a wounded tone, with a copy of the agreement in hand. "Now it is being said that agreements are not binding like the Koran," he added, in a reference to Zardari's explanation for his about-face in a recent interview.

"The breakup had to happen," says a government minister from the PPP, who refused to be named and appeared relaxed about the outcome. "Nawaz Sharif has been too inflexible on the judges issue."

Many analysts agree that Sharif's position on the judges left little room for accommodation, but most cast blame on Zardari for going back on his word. "Where Mr. Sharif proved that his politics had no room for flexibility, Mr. Zardari showed to the world that his definition of ethics in politics was somewhat different [from] that held by most others," wrote Zaffar Abbas, a prominent journalist, on the front page of Monday's Dawn, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.

"We made a mistake by signing an agreement to restore the judges," the PPP minister acknowledged. "Once you make a mistake, the problem is that you keep repeating it."

Sharif's announcement comes days after Zardari, the widower of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her political heir, declared that he would run in the forthcoming presidential election, even though he had officially agreed to choose a candidate with Sharif.

"Zardari outmaneuvered Nawaz," says Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, a liberal Lahore-based newspaper. "Zardari is more ruthless and more cunning. It was a display of realpolitik. He doesn't give a damn about agreements. He wants to consolidate his government. He will lose popularity, but popularity matters six months before an election, not six months after it."

Zardari's desire to consolidate power became apparent with his announcement to run for President — preparations for the Sept. 6 election are already underway. His party members have issued enthusiastic endorsements. A vast PPP poster fastened to a lamppost near Zardari's home in a leafy Islamabad neighborhood proclaims "Our time has now come, Zardari will be our president." Indeed, Zardari is certain to win the election. The President is chosen by an electoral college comprising parliament and provincial legislatures; given the support Zardari has acquired over recent days from smaller parties, his victory appears secure.

While many in Pakistan had hoped that the alliance between Zardari and Sharif would hold, the split may have been inevitable. "In many ways, it was an unnatural alliance," says political commentator Nusrat Javed. The PPP and PML-N have traditionally stood on opposite sides of the political spectrum, divided by fundamental differences in their views on the economy, social mores, Pakistan's role in the American "war on terror" and the country's relationship with Washington.

While Zardari's elevation to the President's house may prove divisive at home, there is a feeling among Pakistani analysts that it would please Washington. "From the American point of view, that would be a plus. There will be one man sitting in the presidency who can handle all the decisions," says Sethi. Marked by indecision and riven by internal disputes, the new coalition government has thus far proved a disappointment to Washington. A more assertive government, with an identifiable and supportive leader at its head, may be seen as an improvement.

Although the government has applied more force in recent days, with military operations underway in the Swat Valley and the tribal areas along the Afghan border, the Taliban has escalated its campaign of revenge, targeting a lawmaker's home in Swat early Monday and killing more than 70 people at a munitions factory last week. Parliament has yet to hammer out a clear policy on how to respond.

Some observers believe Sharif's presence in the coalition was a source of frustration for Washington. Like many Pakistanis, according to recent polls, the former Prime Minister favors using negotiation over force. According to a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, "the Americans are concerned about Sharif's closeness to religious parties."

But others, including Talat Masood, a retired general turned political analyst, believe that Sharif's support would be crucial in any effort to combat militancy. "Sharif represents a very important constituency and his support would have been helpful. By isolating him, there is a risk of isolating his base," Masood says.

The coalition breakup has raised fears that Pakistan may now see a return of the poisonous rivalry between its two mainstream parties, which plagued the country in the 1990s with corruption, misrule and government collapse. It was Sharif who first leveled corruption charges against Zardari — who served in government during his wife's tenure as Prime Minister — and imprisoned him. Zardari's rise to the presidency may trigger a familiar ill feeling among Pakistanis. "Most people in this country I don't think will be happy with it, given Mr. Zardari's reputation," says Daily Times editor Sethi. Zardari is still remembered by many as "Mr. 10%," the sobriquet he earned for allegedly demanding commissions on government contracts. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing and was cleared of all charges earlier this year, thanks to an issue of amnesty by Musharraf. (Justice Chaudhry has threatened to revoke that amnesty, which is why Zardari is believed to oppose the judge's reinstatement to the bench.)

While the PPP says it is prepared to reinstate the other judges, the controversy over Chaudhry, whom the PPP argues has become too politicized, is unlikely to fade. The lawyers' movement that backs Chaudhry has vowed to stage a series of "sit-down protests" in major cities this week. Members of Sharif's party, which has announced that it will stand a former chief justice against Zardari for President, are poised to join them.

Sharif's exit will damage the government, but not break it. Politicians from smaller parties, largely from the traditionally pro-Musharraf camp, are being enlisted to make up the numbers. Free of disputes over the sacked judges, Zardari's new and smaller coalition may now find it easier to confront the challenges of rising militancy and economic decline. But it will face formidable opposition in the form of Sharif and the lawyers' movement set to gather behind him.