Pakistan: Toward Constitutional Regime Change?

5 MINS READFeb 22, 2008 | 20:48 GMT
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
The opposition parties that emerged victorious from Pakistan's Feb. 18 parliamentary elections intensified their power-sharing negotiations Feb. 22. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will face difficulties in dealing with a parliament largely populated by his opponents and with his likely exit from the scene through a more or less constitutional manner.
Power-sharing negotiations among the winners of Pakistan's Feb. 18 parliamentary elections intensified Feb. 22. Though results have not been officially finalized, President Pervez Musharraf's main opponent — the Pakistan People's Party — has emerged as the largest party in parliament, with some 88 seats, followed closely by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz with as many as 67 seats. These will likely be the main partners in a coalition that will also include regional parties like the Mutahiddah Qaumi Movement in the southern city of Karachi and the Awami National Party in North-West Frontier Province, which won 19 and 9 seats respectively in the elections. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League faction suffered a major rout in the election and was barely able to gain 39 seats; the Islamists were the biggest losers with only half a dozen seats. Unlike in the past, there seems to be an unprecedented meeting of the minds among the country's main political forces regarding the formation of government at the federal and provincial levels, but there are issues — such as the popular demand for the restoration of the judiciary and Parliament's future relationship with Musharraf — that can create problems. Despite the current circumstances, Musharraf remains poised to tough it out and hopes he can maintain the one card that has kept him in power: a divided opposition. Because he is now a civilian president and as such no longer enjoys the military's absolute support, it is unlikely that he will be able to prevent the emergence of an aggressive parliament and government. The government's inability to engage in smart vote rigging or "electoral engineering" led to the defeat of pro-Musharraf forces and speaks volumes about Musharraf's vulnerable position. In its first assessment after preliminary election results came in, STRATFOR said the army prevented the government from tampering with the process. According to a Feb. 22 report in a major Pakistani daily, the military ensured free and fair elections — preventing police, intelligence and local authorities from interfering on polling day — and will maintain its neutrality in the process of forming the government. Simply put, Musharraf has been left alone to defend himself against an assertive parliament. Therefore, to sustain himself, Musharraf is trying to exploit the military's unwillingness to unseat him abruptly, the opposition parties' difference of opinion on the restoration of the judiciary and the ambiguity in the U.S. position on his presidency. While there are growing calls even from the political parties for Musharraf to step down, there appears to be a developing consensus among his political opponents, the army and even the United States that the president's exit or regime-change should take place in an orderly manner. The army, through its actions, has already shown that it will neither actively oust Musharraf nor do anything to sustain him. This cautious approach does have its limits, because a clash between Musharraf and the emerging government is inevitable. And in the event of a gridlock resulting from a struggle for supremacy between the presidency and parliament, the army is likely to favor the good of the many over that of the one. Therefore, Musharraf's fight against the legislature will be short-lived; the real issue is how the army as an institution will reach an arrangement with the civilian judiciary and legislative institutions. Though the army under Gen. Ashfaq Kayani is trying to extricate itself from direct involvement in politics, it is not willing to give up its role as the entity ultimately calling the shots. Meanwhile, a more unified political landscape, assertive judicial/legal community, growing civil society and proliferating media will be pushing for greater civilian rule. This renegotiation of civil-military balance will be the real and more long-term contention which will have implications for many years to come. In the here and now, though, the key issue to watch is how the political transition will play out, and whether it will return political instability back to within normal parameters so that Pakistan and the United States can cooperate on counterterrorism and anti-extremism. The victory of mainstream forces in the elections and Kayani's rise as military chief are good signs that there will not be any radical change in Islamabad's policy on the war against terrorism. That said, the new democratic government will be faced with a challenge to balance the domestic pressure (a majority of people feel that the war against jihadists is more in keeping with U.S. than Pakistani interests and that Islamabad's polices need to be reviewed) and the need to maintain cooperation with Washington. Meanwhile, the Islamist rout at the polls could allow the militants to exploit the situation in their favor by trying to make the case that electoral politics is not conducive to Islamist goals. The future of the war against jihadists in Pakistan is therefore contingent upon how a secular civilian government will deal with religious extremism and the need to cater to domestic pressures calling for a more nuanced approach to counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.

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