New government confirmed in Pakistan, as US interests remain dominant

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Pakistan has a brand new prime minister–”Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, scion of a feudal family from Multan, who was sworn in on March 25. He has served as minister and parliamentary speaker in earlier governments and under General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule and spent five years in jail on charges of nepotism for awarding jobs to undeserving people when he was speaker of the National Assembly. In the “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan, nepotism is considered the greatest of sins, especially by those considered enemies of the person in power. That Musharraf is not above such crimes–several of his relatives and close friends hold key positions in the army and government–is conveniently overlooked.

Gilani secured 264 votes in the 342-seat lower house of parliament on March 24 to become prime minister, while his sole challenger, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q that backs Musharraf, got only 42 votes. Gilani’s first act as prime minister was to order the release of detained judges from house arrest. The scene outside the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s house in Islamabad on the evening of March 24 was ecstatic as hundreds of political workers and lawyers assembled on the lawn outside, shouting anti-Musharraf slogans. The police hurriedly removed barricades that had been up since November 3, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency to prevent the judges from ruling on his illegal election as president. He dismissed the judges and placed them under house arrest.

The political landscape in Pakistan has changed dramatically since the elections on February 18 that drove the pro-Musharraf party from power. If the deposed judges are restored, as the parliamentarians have vowed to do within 30 days of convening of parliament, then Musharraf’s chances of remaining in power will diminish even further. He has a C-130 plane ready at the military airbase at Chaklala (Islamabad) to take him and his family into exile in Turkey, where he has built a huge mansion for himself with his stolen moneys. Stealing billions of dollars from the treasury is considered quite normal in the “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan; Musharraf need not fear losing either his hands or his feet for such grand larceny. It is also unlikely that he will be tried for treason, because that would upset the humpty-dumpty of the political structure. Besides, the new dispensation cannot risk antagonising Washington.

The Americans have made it clear that they would not want their puppet to be humiliated too much; elections or no, the US remains boss in Pakistan. Soon after the elections, the People’s Party chief, Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, visited the US embassy twice to meet ambassador Anne Patterson and receive instructions. On March 25, as Gilani was taking oath as prime minister, US deputy secretary of state John Negroponte and assistance secretary Richard Boucher met Pakistani political leaders in Islamabad, no doubt again to issue instructions. Not only does this show gross interference in Pakistan’s domestic affairs by the US; it also reveals the craven nature of Pakistani politicians. Self-respect and dignity are totally alien to them.

In another sign of change, on March 24 a court in Karachi acquitted Zardari of the murder in 1996 of a judge and his son, “due to lack of evidence”, according to the government’s lawyer. Three days earlier, the government withdrew charges in another case in London, this one involving kickbacks with which Zardari and Benazir had purchased a property in Surrey Place for £4 million sterling in 1995. Zardari is being repackaged from “Mr. 10 percent” to “Mr. Clean”. He is also likely to enter parliament by winning a by-election, although he does not qualify according to the rules currently in force, because he does not have a college degree. Having lived as a street urchin for most of his life, Zardari now claims to have earned a degree in 1976 from the London School of Economics and Business (not to be confused with the well-known institution, the London School of Economics [LSE]). No record exists of Zardari’s ever acquiring such a degree, but in the changed environment in Pakistan this no longer matters; no one will question his credentials.

But Pakistan’s new rulers face a daunting task. Thanks to Musharraf’s ill-conceived policies, the country is in a mess. There is no security; bombs continue to explode everywhere. More than 200 people have died in the first three months of 2008; Pakistan’s urban centres are fast taking on the look of Iraq’s violence-prone cities. In the past, such mayhem was confined to the border regions, where the army is waging a crusade against its own people at the behest of the US. Today, neither Islamabad nor Lahore is safe from bombers. This is compounded by the economic crisis. There is shortage of flour, cooking oil, petrol and many other essential commodities; prices have skyrocketed. The electricity supply is erratic; often blackouts last for 12 hours a day. For eight years, Musharraf and his cronies boasted about the economic progress and how foreign exchange reserves had improved. Reality has caught up with Pakistanis: millions of people are in dire straits. The new rulers are not likely to make any significant difference to the lives of ordinary people, especially given their own penchant for corruption and America’s iron grip on Pakistan’s affairs.

Despite the contrived camaraderie between political leaders, there are deep divisions between them and their interests clash. At present four political parties of different persuasions–the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-N League (PML-N), the Awami National Party (ANP) and Jami’atul Ulama-e Islam (JUI), Fazlur Rahman group–have joined hands to form a coalition government. This is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history but it is clearly the result of their common aversion to Musharraf. Once Musharraf has been driven from power, their political differences are likely to resurface. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of the JUI, would dine even with the devil if that would secure him a place at the table where any loot is being distributed.

There are also divisions within the PPP’s ranks; these became apparent in the manner in which Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the party’s vice chairman, was displaced from the prime ministerial post. It is reported that Zardari wanted someone malleable to keep the top seat warm until he himself enters parliament to don the mantle. He may find that Gilani is no pushover either. Zardari does not have Benazir’s political instincts; despite her many weaknesses, the Bhutto name essentially carried her through. In the absence of a Bhutto (Bilawal’s assumption of the Bhutto name is not likely to carry much weight: in the Pakistanis’ eyes he remains a Zardari), other ambitious politicians within the PPP are likely to strike out on their own. Both Amin Fahim and Gilani may cause problems for Zardari, not to mention Nawaz Sharif, head of the Muslim League, the party that enjoys widespread support in the crucial Punjab province.

Political observers liken the present situation to a pack of wolves lying in a circle, facing each other, none closing its eyes for fear of an attack from others: though they attack their prey in packs, they do not trust each other. Once Musharraf is banished, the politicians are likely to go back to their old ways of chicanery.

Zardari’s and Nawaz Sharif’s ambitions are likely to collide; Punjab will prove to be the crucial battle ground. How the two handle the new army chief, who is known to keep his thoughts close to his chest, will also be critical. While both Zardari and Sharif have said that they would like to negotiate with tribal militants to end the violence, how General Ashfaq Kiyani will react is uncertain. Will he accept the politicians’ orders? Not likely; he is America’s man and will continue to carry out Uncle Sam’s orders because the US is the Pakistani army’s real paymaster.

Given the politicians’ crass opportunism and lack of commitment, the optimism generated by recent elections is likely to prove short-lived. Some observers have gone so far as to opine that the present arrangement will not last even a year and that people will be forced to go to the polls again. Both leading parties–the PPP and PML-N–will aim to get a clear mandate to rule on their own; power-sharing is neither familiar to them nor something they enjoy. Pakistani politicians, feudal to their bone-marrow, want everything for themselves. It would take a very great optimist to predict any light at the end of the dark tunnel in which the hapless people of Pakistan are trapped.

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