13 June , 2008
Mindless Obsession with Musharraf
Pakistan’s political scene remains paralyzed over the issue of Musharraf’s fate. The two main coalition parties, the PPP under Asif Zardari and the PML-N under Nawaz Sharif, are struggling to define the terms of Musharraf’s role in Pakistan.
Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister who was overthrown by Musharraf in October 1999, clearly has his sights set on removing Musharraf from the Presidency. Zardari, on the other hand, is happy with the status quo, and sees no need to push things to the limit to get rid of Musharraf. Zardari, unlike Sharif, has no personal problem with Musharraf. It was Sharif who jailed Zardari, and Musharraf who let him go, and it was Musharraf who broke the ice and agreed to let Zardari and his wife Benazir Bhutto back into Pakistan and contest the last elections. Nawaz Sharif got back in under intense Saudi pressure, as the Saudis don’t like the more liberal PPP.
The struggle has been fought through the proxy of the Supreme Court judges. Last year, in a final attempt to hold power, Musharraf declared a state of emergency and threw out the existing Supreme Court justices, replacing them with cronies. By doing so, he got the judicial cover to have himself re-elected to five more years as Pakistan’s President. He also put forward an executive order that pardoned Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari for corruption and other crimes they were under indictment for.
The “lawyers’ movement”, which first got underway last spring when Musharraf first tried to get the Chief Justice out of the way, has made its prime goal the full restoration of the judiciary. Nawaz Sharif has sided with them for political reasons. Sharif sees the restoration of the old court a guarantee that Musharraf’s state of emergency decrees would then be declared illegal, and would void Musharraf’s election as President. Zardari on the other hand sees no benefit in this, because if Musharraf’s acts are nullified, that would reactivate the criminal cases that Musharraf had pardoned Zardari for and swept clean the slate of charges hang over his head.
The other concern that Zardari has is the potential for a major conflict with the army and its patron the United States if he went after Musharraf. The US still sees Musharraf as a friend and ally, while the army would see an attack on Musharraf as an attack on the army establishment. Given those possibilities, Zardari has chosen to act with caution.
Because of this ongoing tussle, the government has been distracted from the real issues. While all eyes are on what will happen to Musharraf, there is no Finance Minister, and inflation is surging while the rupee is declining. Since Shaukat Aziz left office in November 2007, foreign exchange reserves have plummeted from 16 billion dollars to 11 billion. The stock exchange had a meltdown in April, and inflation has surged to double-digits. As there is no one in the government or advising it will real economic understanding, the reflex response to all this is to print money and give it to people. But that will only further stoke inflation in the long run. Because there is complete economic illiteracy in the government, there is no coherence to their policies. Economic growth is going to trend down to 5%or so this year and next, despite severe inflation.
Musharraf is now powerless. Ever since he resigned as head of the army and became a civilian his power vastly diminished. Although on paper he could dismiss the Prime Minister, in reality that is not an option for him. He cannot make laws or policies from his perch, and does not control the bureaucracy. The Pakistani President has some constitutional authority, but not much.
Meanwhile, it is rather amusing how little the new government has actually changed Pakistani policies, both foreign and domestic. The primary policy thrusts are intact. Just recently, the PPP affirmed that it now supported the local body system of local elected officials, which was a Musharraf innovation that was widely condemned for unclear reasons back when it was introduced. Pakistan remains allied with the US, and even permits Predator strikes in FATA. The main planks of the economy remain intact, and there is some lip service paid to privatization. The more things change, the more they remain the same.