Pakistan Political Crisis Deepens

The Pakistani Taliban are not going to take over the Pakistani government. That worry doesn’t keep me up at night. They are small, and operate in a rugged, remote area of the country. They can set off bombs and be a destabilizing force. But a few thousand tribesmen can’t take over a country of 165 million with a large urban middle class that has a highly organized and professional army.

In contrast, the increasingly rancorous conflict between the left of center, largely secular Pakistan People’s Party and the right of center, big-landlord Muslim League, has the potential to tear the country apart.

So here is some important background. Pakistan is made up of four ethnically and linguistically based provinces, Sindh, Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier, and Punjab. Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous province, with 55 percent of the population and much of the country’s wealth.

The PPP, led by the Bhutto family of Sindh, has a national organization and won seats from all over the country in the parliamentary election of Feb. 2008. But its firmest base is Sindh, which is a province divided into a very poor rural Sindhi population and the big urban port of Karachi, which is mainly populated by Urdu-speakers whose families came from India at Partition in 1947. Karachi’s politics is now dominated by the MQM, an Urdu-speakers’ secular nationalist party, which has developed an alliance with the Pakistan People’s Party.

Baluchistan only has 5 percent of the country’s population, and is vast, rugged and arid. It may have a lot of natural gas but who knows? Right now it is not a big player. The North-West Frontier is populated by Pushtuns, organized as somewhat egalitarian clans. They have been most deeply affected by the wars in Afghanistan, and a movement of Pakistani Taliban is active there, though most Pushtuns are not fundamentalists or militants.

So Punjab is the real prize for a politician, sort of the California of Pakistani politics, being rich agriculturally but also having a dynamic urban sector.

In last year’s elections, the PPP took Sindh and was able to find political allies in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier. But the Muslim League took Punjab. Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of the Muslim League’s leader, Nawaz Sharif, was the Chief Minister of Punjab.

PPP leader Asaf Ali Zardari initially sought an alliance with the Muslim League against then dictator Pervez Musharraf, and pledged that Shahbaz would remain Chief Minister of Punjab even though the PPP became the dominant party in the federal parliament.

A conflict developed between Nawaz Sharif and PPP leader Asaf Ali Zardari over the deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhury. Dictator Musharraf had dismissed Chaudhury in spring of 2007 for opposing some of his policies. Pakistan’s massive legal establishment began holding rallies and demanding that the chief justice be reinstated, which he was in summer 2007. Musharraf was under pressure from Washington to become a civilian president. But he found out that fall that the supreme court would not allow this transition because the constitution requires that a military man have been out of the service for 2 years before becoming president. So Musharraf just dismissed the whole supreme court, including the recently reinstated Chaudhury, and appointed a new court, which sycophantically recognized him as president.

When he was allowed to come back to Pakistan from exile in Saudi Arabia, Nawaz Sharif, who had been overthrown as prime minister in 1999 by Musharraf, began demanding that Iftikhar Chaudhury and the old, dismissed, supreme court be reinstated.

After the PPP won the parliamentary elections, its leader, Zardari, declined to reinstate Chaudhury. Zardari was afraid that the chief justice might reinstate the corruption charges against him, which had been amnestied by Musharraf.

Zardari was elected president last September. The conflict between him and the Muslim League, simmered along.

But just last week, the supreme court dismissed Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister of Punjab, and barred him and Nawaz Sharif from running for office. Some suspect the court of acting at President Zardari’s behest.

The Sharif brothers say that this court is anyway illegitimate and refuse to recognize its rulings, since it is the fruit of a poisoned tree, i.e. the arbitrary creature of a desperate military dictator 18 months ago.

The attorneys are also still angry over the failure of Zardari to reinstate Chaudhury and the others.

So on March 15, the Muslim League (which is more conservative landlord than religious fundamentalist, despite the name) is organizing a “long march” on parliament to protest the current supreme court and the recent decisions it issued against the Sharifs.

On the hustings, Nawaz Sharif said that the only thing that could save Pakistan now was a revolution, and announced that he had “raised the standard of rebellion.”

An adviser to the Interior Ministry (equivalent to our Homeland Security) then came out yesterday and warned that the Sharifs could be charged with sedition if they talk like that.

So now you have people talking about the danger of a repeat of the partition of Pakistan into Bangladesh and West Pakistan in 1971. I presume the Muslim League would get Punjab and the PPP would get the other three provinces.

For Pakistan’s two major civilian parties, who only 7 months ago rid the country of a military dictator, to go mano a mano at each other like this is potentially tragic. If they destabilize the country, they could tempt the military to come back out of the barracks and make yet another coup. Short of that, there could be faction-fighting in villages and cities.

Pakistan is a nuclear state, so this degree of instability is especially worrying. The danger is not a take-over by the Taliban, but rather a coup (led by whom of what views?) or blood in the streets.

Meanwhile, dictator-in-retirement Musharraf blames the Pakistan Muslim League (N)– the “N” stands for Nawaz– for the crisis.

The Taliban are small potatoes compared to this clash of titans.

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