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Pakistan: Crisis Brews As Musharraf Postpones Parliament Session

  • Ron Synovitz

Pakistan's military government has delayed tomorrow's opening session of the newly elected parliament by a week, after antimilitary secular parties and hard-line Islamists announced a deal for a coalition government. Leaders of the proposed coalition say the delay is aimed at thwarting their deal and giving allies of President Pervez Musharraf time to form their own government by coaxing away a faction from the antimilitary alliance.

Prague, 7 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The decision by Pakistan's military government to delay the opening of parliament by a week is widely seen in Islamabad as a setback for a proposed coalition of secular and Islamist forces that oppose President Musharraf.

The inauguration of the legislature is a key step in Pakistan's transition from military to civilian rule. It was due to take place on 8 November.

But Musharraf -- a senior military official who seized power in a bloodless coup three years ago and confirmed his self-declared presidency in a controversial referendum -- said yesterday he is postponing the event at the request of "many political parties."

But most leaders of the secular and Islamist parties that oppose the military regime in Islamabad are furious. They allege Musharraf is trying to prevent his rivals from taking power and, instead, give his allies more time to form their own coalition by coaxing one faction away from the antimilitary alliance.

RFE/RL spoke about the developments with Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore-based journalist and author noted for his books "Taliban" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia."

Rashid said Musharraf's rivals are concerned that he may use the expanded presidential powers he has given himself to prevent the parliament from meeting at all -- particularly if the pro-military factions cannot reach a coalition deal with at least one party in the anti-army alliance. Such a move would effectively nullify the results of last month's elections, which resulted in an unexpectedly strong show of support for hard-line Islamist candidates.

Rashid says, "The fact that there is a deadlock [between the pro-army alliance and the anti-army alliance right now, and] the fact that there is a possibility for an anti-army coalition to come into power -- all these facts do raise speculation a great deal in Islamabad that, in fact, the military may use its option to discount the elections and send everybody home even before the assembly meets. That is very much an option in the cards."

On 3 November, a coalition deal between hard-line Islamists and secular anti-Musharraf parties was announced by Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, who heads the anti-military Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD). Khan said the coalition would support Islamist leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman as prime minister.

Rehman has a history of making strong anti-American and pro-Taliban remarks. He is a personal friend of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. He has visited Libya to meet with Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi. And Rehman's faction, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, also reportedly has received financial backing from Libya.

The ARD includes the two largest secular parties opposed to the military regime in Islamabad -- the Pakistan People's Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the man ousted by Musharraf's coup. Musharraf has banned both Bhutto and Sharif from holding government office.

Despite the ARD's announcement of a coalition deal with the Islamists, Bhutto herself has not publicly endorsed Rehman's candidacy.

On the contrary, Bhutto, from her self-imposed exile in London, has repeatedly warned about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan -- even though in 1993 her government named Rehman as the head of its foreign relations committee.

The refusal of Bhutto to publicly back Rehman as prime minister shows that behind-the-scenes bargaining is continuing between the leading political factions -- none of which won enough parliamentary seats to form a government on its own.

Some senior members of Bhutto's party say privately that they could break away from the ARD and side with the pro-Musharraf parties. A key condition for such a move is the release from prison of Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and the dropping of corruption charges against Bhutto herself so that she can to return to Pakistan.

Rashid says Bhutto could accomplish the same goals by siding with the Islamists. But he notes that a coalition of secular and Islamist forces would have almost nothing in common except their opposition to Musharraf and the expanded powers he has given himself through constitution-altering presidential decrees.

"It's a very strange alliance, because these groupings have been enemies in the past. But the main target is now seen as the military and getting rid of General Pervez Musharraf and ensuring that the amendments the military wants to bring about in the Constitution do not [receive the parliamentary approval required under the 1973 Constitution]. So that is the challenge that is now being faced by the army," Rashid says.

Even if the Islamists and Musharraf's secular opponents do manage to join together in a coalition, Rashid predicts that the arrangement will not last long: "This is not going to be the easiest of alliances if they do come into power. And even if they are in opposition, the likelihood of it falling apart quite soon is very much there. But at the same time, I think it is striking out on a new path for Pakistan. And not only that, it really is sending a very defiant signal to the military."

The Islamist movement -- known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA -- groups together six Islamic parties that campaigned against the presence of foreign troops in Pakistan, stationed there as part of the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign.

But despite some reports suggesting an Islamist prime minister would be a nightmare scenario for Washington, some Western analysts say Rehman is not the greatest threat to Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led campaign.

Roy Allison is one such analyst and the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"The real Islamist challenge for Musharraf, and the most difficult thing for him to get under control, to date, are those [Islamists] in the army itself -- and particularly in the Inter Services Intelligence -- because they really had access, they had influence [with the Taliban]. They had power, whereas the parties have been outside the system. It would become more worrying if, in fact, [an Islamist prime minister] helped shore up the positions of some of those in senior military positions who were, and in some ways still are, sympathetic toward the Taliban," Allison says.

Rashid notes that since the 10 October general elections, the harsh anti-American rhetoric of the Islamists has been toned down.

"The Islamic parties have been going out of their way to reassure the international diplomats in Islamabad that they are not going to throw the Americans out of Pakistan [and] that they are not going to do a turnaround on the war against Al-Qaeda. I think their impact is going to be more at home. They are probably going to stick to the present foreign policy [of supporting the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign] because they will be under pressure from [Pakistan's] military [and] from the Americans," Rashid says.

Rashid says the most significant impact of hard-line Islamists in the government would be on social policies -- and possibly the legal system itself.

"They would be carrying out, I think, very controversial and contentious changes at home in the laws. They will try to Islamicize the social systems like education and health and other such things, and also perhaps try to change the legal system toward Sharia Islamic law. Now, that is probably not going to affect the international community so much. But it is going to be very controversial in Pakistan," Rashid says.

Even if the Islamists fail to negotiate a role for themselves in the next government, their election to local and provincial posts in the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan -- both of which border Afghanistan -- have ensured that they will have a strong influence on social and security policies in those areas.

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