Pakistan’s new Parliament, which was sworn in on Monday, sets the stage for a final showdown with the Pervez Musharraf regime. It has a majority of members from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Asif Ali Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. After sweeping to victory in last month’s elections, these parties have formed a coalition government along with a small group of Islamist politicians and nationalists. A PPP nominee, Fehmida Mirza, has also been elected as Pakistan’s first woman Speaker. But winning the polls was probably the easy part, as the new government faces daunting tasks in running a country that has slid into political and economic chaos during the last eight years.
The shrewd tactician that he is, Mr Musharraf couldn’t have overlooked the possibility of losing the election. This is clear from the way he clings to power so tenaciously, even reconciling to the prospect of the PPP and the PML-N forming the government. It is no secret that his position remains tenable only as long as he retains sweeping powers to dismiss the Prime Minister and Parliament. So leaders of the PPP and the PML-N are keen to amend the Constitution and strip the President of such absolute powers. The PML-N, in particular, makes no bones about trying to impeach him. Fortunately for him, the coalition’s 225 seats in the 342-member National Assembly, while enough to elect the Speaker, still fall short of the two-thirds majority needed to impeach the President. Even then it’s likely that Mr Musharraf may eventually have to reverse many of his arbitrary decisions in return for the opposition’s minimal cooperation. That is, if the weak links binding the PPP-PML-N ties do not unravel too soon.
The signs are already there. Mr Sharif appears to be keen on bringing back the 1973 Constitution to its pre-October 1999 status (to help himself to Pakistan’s premiership for the third time), while Mr Zardari is in no hurry, presumably because he has nothing to gain from this status quo ante. It will be interesting to watch how events play out in Pakistan in the days ahead.