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Presidential fatigues

Pakistan president doesn?t want to let go of his uniform. Vinod Sharma wonders if Benazir Bhutto could help?

india Updated: Feb 01, 2007 04:49 IST

Politics is in a state of flux in Pakistan. This after all is the year of the generel elections  that may precede or follow the renewal of Pervez Musharraf’s presidential term till 2012. There is no dearth of advice available to Musharraf. But all of them beg the question: will he get re-elected by the new electoral college or take the ‘easy’ but risky course of retaining office with the help of assemblies whose term ends in November?

Quite intrinsic to the presidential polls is Musharraf’s barely concealed desire to continue wearing the uniform. He had first promised to demit office as Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) by December 31, 2004, a deadline he prolonged to November 15, 2007, by making a section of the Opposition — the mullah party combine of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal  (MMA) — put its stamp on what is called the 17th Amendment.

Okayed by Parliament on December 31, 2003, the Constitution (17th Amendment) Act, 2003, was a New Year’s gift for Musharraf. It allowed him to keep the uniform till the end of his presidential term while according constitutional sanctity to the Legal Framework Order (LFO) through which he had appropriated powers to sack the Prime Minister, dissolve the National Assembly and appoint the chiefs of armed forces.

The political icing on the cake for Musharraf was the fissure the  amendment created between a supportive MMA and a bitterly opposed Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) comprising Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML).

Three years down the line and a little over nine months to the November deadline, the President continues to don the khaki. The 17th Amendment that once divided the Opposition is now a constitutional validation of the ARD-MMA’s demand that Musharraf keep the promise of demitting office as the army chief.

Technically, a simple majority in the bicameral Parliament and the provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sindh, the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan, whose terms also expire in November, can give Musharraf another five years as President. Contemplated at the Federal Cabinet’s January 17 meeting, the move is likely to be resisted tooth and nail by the Opposition. For its part, the MMA, given the numbers it has in the NWFP, could even render the electoral college for presidential polls incomplete by forcing dissolution of the House.

Musharraf could, if driven to the wall, take recourse to extra-constitutional measures. The consequent near-total political isolation would compound his dependence on the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) — pejoratively called the ‘King’s Party’ for its record of kowtowing to army rulers — and would probably derail his domestic agenda of ‘enlightened moderation’ and the three-year-old peace talks with India.

The general, in fact, seems caught in a chakravyuh of his own making. The 17th Amendment gives him sweeping powers as President while putting a time bar on holding office as COAS. Worse, Article 43 of the Constitution that will come into force after November states: “The President shall not hold any office of profit in the service of Pakistan or occupy any other position carrying the right to remuneration for the rendering of services.”

So, in the absence of a mutually beneficial deal with the Opposition or a section of it, Musharraf lacks risk-free options to retain a uniformed presidency reminiscent of Ayub Khan’s ‘representative dictatorship’ that doesn’t quite promote parliamentary sovereignty. By himself, he can perpetrate the existing arrangement either through a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) — of the kind promulgated in 2001 to enable him become President — or rig the elections to secure a captive National Assembly that will amend Article 43 to let him wear two hats.

But that would be a slippery course for the President who, until Balochistan happened, had sold himself to the West and the United States as a benign military ruler committed to promoting ‘modern values’, fighting extremism and promoting peace in the subcontinent. In 2005, Benazir’s husband Asif Zardari stated that Musharraf’s record of curtailing individual and political freedoms was no better than Zia-ul Haq’s. Yet, his assiduously cultivated image of a ‘liberal’ denied the Opposition the sympathetic international audience it had during previous spells of military rule.

How then can Musharraf beat the Catch-22 situation? Political reliance on the mullah-driven, pro-Taliban MMA would be self-defeating. That leaves Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf distrusts, and Benazir Bhutto, the ‘lesser evil’ with whom a rapprochement may be possible at a political price. But what is the price? The 17th Amendment offers an opening for a quid pro quo with Bhutto. It is believed that a presidential assurance of the repeal of a law the Amendment validates against a person holding the PM’s post thrice could provide the basis of an accord with  Bhutto, who, like Sharif, has been premier twice.

Unlike Sharif, who cannot return to Pakistan without Musharraf’s approval, Bhutto is in a self-imposed exile in Dubai since 1998. There is no impediment to her return to Pakistan — except the corruption charges on which she could be jailed. Analysts do not discount a convergence of interests rooted in Musharraf’s anxiety to retain the uniform and Bhutto’s desire to reclaim the PM’s office.

Practically, it would mean the PPP swapping places with the MMA to replicate 2003. For his part, Musharraf has kept the back-channels open with Bhutto, his close friend and secretary of the National Security Council Tariq Aziz reportedly playing the go-between along with a former British envoy to Pakistan. This sub-plot to the confusing political drama is perceived to have the blessings of international players keen on seeing Musharraf broaden his mass support, something on which the ruling PML(Q) has failed him miserably.   

Musharraf will eventually follow the advice of his corps commanders and a few trusted constitutional experts. For Bhutto, however, the choice will be many times more difficult, entail as it would a tacit or overt agreement to let Musharraf continue to be General.

A PPP climbdown on what has come to be recognised as the core issue will split not just the ARD but also the MMA. The resultant polarisation could see the rabidly anti-Musharraf Jamat-e-Islami severe its  uneasy ties with the Jamiatul-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and join Nawaz Sharif.

Sceptics like Imran Khan do not see the PPP leader rising to the bait. But they are reluctant to forecast the next turn in a polity that witnessed Bhutto playing ball with the civil-military establishment in the 1993 polls. The compromise, after all, helped her become PM the second time.

Email Vinod Sharma:vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com