Musharraf to Cross the LFO Bridge

Islamabad:The struggle over the LFO between a major section of the elected parliamentarians and the establishment appears to be a drawing to a close. The establishment finally understands the necessity to deal with the LFO crisis. Its not one that will simply disappear. Even if the establishment’s key western supporters maintain that “the LFO is not an ordinary man’s issue “the negative fall out of the unresolved LFO dispute is continuing political instability ; no less the virtual paralysis and constant protests in the parliament and the Senate. Ideally the establishment would have preferred an agreement on the LFO with the PPP, minus the PPP leader Benazir Bhutto.

The establishment-opposition clash over the LFO mirrored the ongoing power struggle among Pakistan’s civil and uniformed power groups. The elected parliamentarians were adamant about restricting the Constitutional space that the un-elected establishment unconstitutionally carved out for itself.

The establishment headed by General Parvez Musharraf believed that by retaining power wrested by him through the October 1999 coup d’etat and ‘legally sanctioned’ to him by a Supreme Court that took an oath of preserving and promoting his Constitutional decrees, he would reform the State and politics of Pakistan. The sincerity of his intentions notwithstanding, the political method and means chosen for reform have been defective.

The opposition persisted in rejecting the LFO. They sought amendments in key clauses. They demanded it be brought to the elected parliament for approval. After all Musharraf’s predecessor General Zia ul Haq too had to submit before the will of the parliament.

The principal critique of the LFO however remained that under it power balance would have prevented checks and balances. However, the strategy pursued by the three main opposition parties was different. The PPP and PML(N) , because of self-exiled leadership , was forced to focus on some package deal for its leadership abroad as quid pro quo for the LFO. Meanwhile the MMA, now in power in the NWFP and Baluchistan, focused exclusively on the Constitutional issues arising from the LFO.

After taking oath. the Opposition parliamentarians did not relent on the LFO issue. The MMA through dozens of negotiations with various sets of the establishment’s teams including military men, politicians and bureaucrats finally an agreement was worked out between the MMA and the establishment-appointed team.

A likely agreement will include four key elements. One that presidential powers under 58(2) b have been curtailed. Instead of dissolution of Assemblies, only the cabinet will be dismissed. This greatly limits the vulnerability of the elected members of the parliament. The elected members would not be beholden to the President for their continuation in office. Powers to dismiss the cabinet could be justified, for a limited period of time, as a means of maintaining checks and balances in the exercise of State power.

Two the National Security Council will be established through a law passed by the parliament instead of being established under a Constitutional provision. Article 152(A) will be converted into law. Three the present crop of judges serving through an extension period will retire within one year of the passage of the LFO amendment. Four the president will have to take a vote of confidence instead of contesting an election ‘legalize’ his Presidency

The establishment still hopes to convince MMA to change its position on the vote of confidence. It seeks MMA’s support for the President. MMA however has opted to de-link the issue of supporting the president when he seeks a vote of confidence from the house from the LFO package.

While not resolving all issues of power of specifically of civil-military relations , overall an agreement on the LFO will tip, in favor of the elected parliament, the current power equation which greatly favors the establishment. It has been an effort to instill a degree of accountability in the exercise of State power. Crossing the LFO bridge may enable the parliament to get on with the business of promoting the interests of their constituencies; otherwise the people of Pakistan.

The establishment has learnt the hard way. Politics, the unfamiliar terrain, has finally coerced it to compromise and to adjust to certain ground realities. An agreement over the LFO will have come after the President had to concede to the Opposition’s demand that some date be given for the removal of his uniform. Also it will also have demonstrably proved the failure of its two main planks of political engineering; one the presidential referendum and two the strategy of ‘going it alone’ with only the establishment supported party. By-passing political power is not always possible for those who wield ‘muscle power.’