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Monday, March 10, 2008

Ghost At The Banquet
The delay in government formation is mired in complex issues of coalition politics
Mariana Baabar
The Ides of March beckons the political class of Pakistan. It beckons, to begin with, President Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf from his isolation in the Army House to an uncertain future in Awan-e-Sadar or Presidential Palace, where he must now shift after exercising absolute power for eight weary years. His future appears bleak because snapping at his heel is the new presidential hopeful, Mian Nawaz Sharif. And the person likely to administer the oath of office is deposed chief justice Iftikhar M. Chaudhry, whom Musharraf distastefully described as "scum of the earth".
Perhaps for the first time, the PPP PM won't be a Bhutto. Fahim seems to be the frontrunner.
Call this script the revenge of the insulted. Call it delirious speculation brought on by the astonishing poll results of February 18. But just about anything is possible in the climate of fresh political alignments. With the army retreating
to the barracks, the three As calling the shots here are—Asif, America and Allah. No wonder, it's Asif Ali Zardari whom Musharraf wants to woo. As Zardari demonstrated, over the February 27 lunch, his formidable support in the National Assembly (NA)—consisting of elected members of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Asfandyar Wali Khan's Awami National Party and independents—Musharraf deftly served an ace. His handpicked Supreme Court quashed three petitions challenging the National Reconciliation Order (NRO), thereby ensuring Zardari doesn't have to remain entangled in corruption cases. Two petitions against the NRO are pending, but these too the Supreme Court is expected to throw out.The Supreme Court's order is perceived as an attempt to drive a wedge between Zardari and Sharif. For, the NRO granted amnesty only to those facing corruption cases filed till 1999, long before which Benazir had been voted out. By contrast, the Sharif brothers—Nawaz and Shahbaz—had several cases registered against them post-1999. The Supreme Court's order is interpreted as Musharraf's message to Zardari—let Sharif grapple with corruption cases and exploit the opportunity to encroach upon his political base. Theoretically, an attractive proposition for Zardari whose PPP will have the PML(N) as its principal rival in future elections. Not many here are unduly agitated about the delay in government formation. This is usually the norm when the president is opposed to the party which wins the election; it has been particularly the experience of the PPP. In 1993, for instance, then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan didn't call Benazir to form the government until Washington interceded on her behalf.Hitherto, Zardari's approach has been reconciliatory, manifest in his studied refrain from directly attacking Musharraf and insisting Parliament will decide the president's fate. Perhaps Zardari has been influenced by US ambassador Anne W. Patterson who indicated to him that Washington still considers Musharraf its 'man'. Zardari, in turn, reminded Patterson of the NRO which was part of the deal between Musharraf and Benazir—and which was subsequently challenged in the Supreme Court. Some say Musharraf wants a dignified exit, citing US senator Jo Bidden's remark in New York. Bidden said, "When he (Musharraf) came out to meet us, he said, 'The results are in. We have lost.' I think he will go gently into the night. My view is, if they treat him with a little bit of dignity, I think he is prepared to, in the near term, significantly withdraw from the exercise of power." Though the army under its chief, Pervez Kiyani, has distanced itself from politics, it won't accept the humiliation of the man who had taken off his uniform only months ago.Musharraf would want a dignified exit because the new parliamentarians are expected to amend the notorious Article 58(2)(b) that empowers the president to dissolve the NA.But Sharif isn't willing to wait, keen to avenge the humiliation suffered at Musharraf's hand. At the February 27 power lunch, Sharif shouted, "See our strength,Mr Musharraf. Call the formation of the new government at once. We are not ready to wait for a single day more."The direction of the wind blowing in Islamabad suggests that for the first time the prime minister from the PPP won't be a Bhutto. The person widely expected to become PM is Makhdoom Amin Fahim, an uncharismatic personality who's nevertheless considered easy to work with. He's respected in the PPP because he rejected Musharraf's overture to become PM in '02 in return for betraying Benazir and shepherded the party in her absence. His biggest strength: unlike Zardari, there are no corruption charges against him. Yet others say the PPP could opt for someone from Punjab who would keep the seat warm till Zardari decides to take over. A PM from Sindh, from where Fahim hails, could offer the people there an alternative to the Bhuttos for showering their affection.In Islamabad, the name of the game is Tor Jor (Break and Make), for forming governments at the Centre and the four provinces. Sharif will support the PPP at the Centre but his party won't participate in its government. His reason, ostensibly, is that he doesn't want Musharraf to administer the oath of allegiance to PML(N) members. Another question dogs Islamabad: should the new parliamentarians take oath under the amended Constitution that includes Art 270AAA? This article validates the Emergency Musharraf imposed in November '07 and the orders he issued. Since accepting this article is tantamount to undermining the people's verdict, legal luminaries are trying to find a way out. Who says the art of politics is easy to master?

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