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Friday, September 7, 2007

Pakistan’s poltical show, starring Mush, Bush, Bhutto and Sharif

Pakistan’s poltical show, starring Mush, Bush, Bhutto and Sharif - Daily Mirror

With some 200 people killed in bomb blasts in the past two months and a political crisis getting curioser and curioser, Pakistan is attracting global attention.

Pakistan People's Party leader and two-times prime minister Benazir Bhutto, surreptitiously supported by the United States and Britain from behind-the-scenes, has flown to Dubai for meeting with emissaries of the embattled Pakistan President, General Pervez Musharraf, a key ally of Washington's war on terror.

In the meantime, upsetting the Western scheme aimed at manipulating events in Pakistan, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be arriving in the country on Monday.

The entry of Sharif, the spanner in the wheel, has apparently irked the West which has blessed a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Benazir, both of whom are pro-western and hence regarded as anti-Islamists.

Although hardcore Islamists are just a fraction of Pakistan's 150 million population, anti-US sentiments are pervasive across the country with the Bush administration being seen as waging a subtle crusade against Islam, a view that is prevalent across the Muslim world.

Sharif is a formidable force in Pakistan politics. He is no pro-Islamist and he, like Bhutto, has openly, though belatedly, vowed allegiance to George Bush's war on terror, yet his return to politics has caused ripples in Washington.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia, Washington's key ally in West Asia, expressed its discontentment over Sharif's return to Pakistan.

It was Saudi Arabia which granted Sharif a home in exile when Musharraf, upon seizing power in a 1999 military coup, expelled him after he was sentenced to life in prison on tax evasion and treason charges.

That Saudi Arabia intervening in what is exclusively a matter concerning Pakistan's internal affair is an indication that the West is not comfortable with Sharif's return.

The Saudis were, however, circumspect. The news items carried by the Saudi Press Agency quoted an unnamed government official.

"Wisdom dictates that Mr. Nawaz Sharif abides by his promises not to return to Pakistan and to political activity," said the Saudi official.

He urged Sharif to honour his promise when he accepted the exile deal. The promise was that he would not return to Pakistan for ten years.

Significantly on the very day Sharif returns to Pakistan - September 10 - a top Bush envoy, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, the man who held the fort for the Bush administration in the United Nations and in Baghdad, would also visit Pakistan for crucial talks on war on terror and the latest development in Pakistani politics.

It was only two months ago that Negroponte, a cold-blooded diplomat, was in Pakistan and his second visit underscores the importance Washington is according to domestic politics in Pakistan. After all, Pakistan is a vital cog of the wheel that drives the war on terror, which has become a multi-billion dollar business for US firms. Since the war began, Pakistan has been rewarded with US$ 10 billion worth of military and economic aid, much of which has come from a special Pentagon fund with little congressional scrutiny.

Events unfold in Pakistan at a rapid pace. There is a sudden urgency to strike deals between Musharraf and Bhutto; and between Nawaz Sharif and those who oppose the Musharraf-Bhutto deal. Supporters of Sharif are being arrested in Punjab, the key support base of the deposed leader, who has successfully obtained a Supreme Court ruling for his return.

The detention of Sharif supporters is seen as a move to prevent the Pakistan Muslim Legaue which Sharif heads from organizing a massive show of strength when he returns or if he is arrested upon his return.

On Wednesday, Bhutto announced in Dubai that she would also return home from self-exile in weeks, not months, ahead of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. She said she wanted to meet Musharraf face-to-face and the contentious issue -- whether Musharraf will quit his role as army chief ahead of his bid to be re-elected as president in September or October -- was "resolved".

Also on Wednesday, Chief Justice Ifthikar Choudhry, responding to a petition filed by Jamath-e-Islam, asked Musharraf to inform court of the date when his term as president expires. Musharraf's answer to the court's query would determine the election date.

Choudhry, who was removed by Musharraf only to be reinstated by the Supreme Court amidst countrywide protests, has become more pro-active and progressive in his rulings. In the light of new-found judicial activism by Pakistan's Supreme Court, judgments on the ongoing cases on the constitutionality of Musharraf's presidency are much looked forward to.

Musharraf allies say the president's term ends on December 31 and he would seek re-election at least 90 days before that - by October 15. But opponents say that since Musharraf took office as President in June 2000, he has already served his five-year term. They also question Musharraf's eligibility to be the head of the military since he is over 60.

It all boils down to elections - presidential and parliamentary - and the Bush administration is clearly worried about the outcome. The worst scenario for the Bush administration is a powerful show at the elections by the Islamic parties representing the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), whose support the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Q), a breakaway party of Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League, has courted for its survival.

It is not known how the MMA, which shocked the world by winning 60 seats in the 2002 elections to the 342-member national assembly, largely because of widespread anti-US sentiments, would fare at the upcoming elections.

The Musharraf regime's crackdown on Islamabad's Red Mosque and the ongoing pro-Taliban insurgency in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province may help MMA to bolster its flagging support, though provincial administrations run by the MMA in the Frontier Province and Baluchistan have been commended for being less corrupt.

The Pakistan Muslim League (Q), which has some 69 seats in parliament, is clearly unhappy over the Musharraf-Bhutto deal. Such a deal will effectively sideline them, with Bhutto's PPP taking all the plums. Whether such a situation will force the PML (Q) to join with the Nawaz Sharif wing is the moot question.

The making and remaking of political alignments and realignments may end up with none winning an absolute majority. In this scenario, the Islamists emerging as the possible kingmakers will make Washington kick its heels. So it wants to make sure its man, Musharraf, remains the president. The only way it could do this is through a deal with Bhutto. However much Sharif says he is also an anti-Islamist and he supports the war on terror, it is unlikely that he would work out a deal with Musharraf. Washington has no problem with Sharif. In fact, Sharif has proved his credentials as a Washington acolyte when, during the Kargil crisis, he bowed to the dictates of the Clinton administration. But Musharraf and Sharif are still at daggers drawn.

Bhutto, on the other hand, has sent subtle messages to Washington that she is better qualified to be Bush's representative in Pakistan.

She has supported Musharraf's assault on the Red Mosque and made public statements against the Taliban, whereas Sharif made no such statements palatable to the Bush administration.

So the coming weeks will see the signing of the Musharraf-Bhutto deal - which will prompt Bhutto's PPP to support Musharraf's re-election and in return, the Pakistan president will remove the constitutional impediments and withdraw corruption charges to allow Bhutto to become prime minister for the third time.

Washington and the West will applaud the deal but already Bhutto's own party seniors have warned her that her popularity might plummet if she openly courts Musharraf and the Bush administration. Interesting times ahead in Pakistan politics.

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