Pakistan Coalition Has Two-Thirds Majority: Will seek to Reinstate Dismissed Justices; Confrontation with Musharraf Looms

Pakistan People’s Party leader Asaf Ali Zardari and Pakistan Muslim League-N leader Nawaz Sharif reached a historic accord on Sunday aimed at forming a coalition government. The PPP will lead the government and choose the cabinet ministers, in consultation with its partners, but PMLN officials will also serve in the cabinet. They were joined by two smaller parties, and their total seats in parliament amount to 2/3s. This fraction is an important threshold, since it may allow them to amend the constitution and to over-rule President Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari and Sharif in Accord (courtesy of Dawn)

In return for joining the PPP as a junior partner, the Muslim League-N has been granted its chief desire, the pledge to attempt to reinstate the court judges dismissed in 2007 by dictator Pervez Musharraf. The two parties also intend to strip Musharraf of the authority to dismiss parliament. This agreement signals trouble ahead.

Zardari said, referring to attitudes like those expressed by George W. Bush and John McCain in favor of the dictator:

‘ “I want to request the world, please give us a chance. Pakistanis have spoken and they have spoken the language of democracy . . .” ‘

A reinstated supreme court may well attempt to make Musharraf step down. He in turn maintains that he still has strong support in the Pakistani military, which has made numerous coups in the 60 years of Pakistani independence.

Although the Pakistani elections were held on February 18, it has taken this long for the victors to cobble together a coalition. The players are as follows:

Pervez Musharraf is now civilian president, though he came to power as a military dictator and held a pretty little referendum for himself (with no opponent in sight) in 2002, which he “won.” He was elected president while still a general in uniform last October, by the Pakistani senate, which he appointed. It is unconstitutional for a military man to be elected president unless he has been out of uniform for two years. When the Supreme Court seemed likely to point this out and vacate the results of the election, Musharraf summarily dismissed the justices. He appointed a new supreme court that confirmed him in office. Under enormous American pressure, he held the Feb. 18 elections.

All but 9 of 342 seats in the lower house have now been allocated by the Electoral commission. (A few districts had their elections postponed so that there will be a by-election; results are very late coming in for some others).

120 seats, or 35% of the seats in the federal parliament went to the Pakistan People’s Party. It is a relatively secular, left of center party led until Dec. 27 by Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated. Her killing set off waves of rioting and destruction in her native province of Sindh, in the southeast of the country. It is co-chaired by her widow, Asaf Ali Zardari.

Zardari’s faction of the PPP had been reluctant to challenge Musharraf directly, instead hoping gradually to marginalize him. More confrontational is activist attorney Aitzaz Ahsan, who has been rallying the left of the party in support of the dismissed justices, in ways that disturb Zardari’s circle.

Some 90 seats or about 26% were won by the Pakistan Muslim League-N of Nawaz Sharif. This party, which was largely elected from the populous Punjab province of the northeast (60% of Pakistanis are Punjabis) is dead set on finding a way to remove Musharraf from power. The dictator overthrew Sharif in 1999 and exiled him to Saudi Arabia until late 2007 (though Sharif had been acting pretty dictatorial, himself, before he was overthrown). The PMLN has vociferously demanded the reinstatement of the dismissed justices and judges.

13 seats or 2% were won by the Pushtun (Pathan) secular nationalist party, the Awami National Party. It represents the Pushtuns of the Northwest Frontier Province.

The new coalition is brought up over 66% by the addition of the Jamiat Ulama-i Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, a hard line fundamentalist party that has nevertheless insisted on the restoration of the secular judiciary.

Moreover, the coalition of victors will win all the 5 seats for which there will be by-elections, and possibly most of those for which results have still not been posted.

The victors face a bit of a problem in the form of the senate, where the pro-Musharraf parties have a slender majority on paper. But in fact support for Musharraf has eroded even there, and senators recessed after they could not get a quorum for a vote proposed by Musharraf supporters in support of the president.

The strong two-thirds majority that the new coalition enjoys in the lower house gives the victors the ability to move steadily and swiftly to accomplish their goal of restoring the rule of law and marginalizing Musharraf or even force him to step down. The military, now led by Ashfaq Kiyani, who had been Benazir Bhutto’s military secretary, is an important player here but it has not spoken. If Kiyani stays out of civilian politics, Musharraf is likely in trouble. If the army moves again, there is a question of whether the public will stand for it.

Pakistan has just bought a ticket on a big scary roller coaster.