Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is likely to weather the storm created over the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and will find more reasons to tighten military control over Pakistan, at least until the elections are successfully organized in November.

Although some major towns have been witnessing street protests, mostly by lawyers and some political party activists, since the March 7 suspension there are no signs of either rival political parties joining ranks to oppose the general or the Bush administration being willing to part ways with him.

There is no doubt that the suspension of the chief justice had the potential of galvanizing the rival political parties to join hands against the common enemy: the general in Islamabad. But it has not, and in all likelihood, there are fewer chances of it happening due to intense rivalries between the parties at present.

The political party in the forefront of the agitation is the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a six-party religious alliance. Once a supporter of the general, it is determined to oppose his re-election this year. Although the group has threatened to spearhead a movement against Gen. Musharraf, it is not likely to gather steam because of the visible and deep divisions within the top hierarchy.

The main leaders of the alliance, Qazi Hussain Ahmad (Jamaat-e-Islami) and Maulana FazlurRehman(Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam), have often struck diametrically different notes. The persistent confusion within MMA ranks about the future came out in the open in December, when the group quietly buried its loud threat to resign from the National Assembly unless Gen. Musharraf acceded to their demands of quitting as army chief before the elections. These differences are starkly visible, once again, on the issue of Mr. Chaudhry’s suspension early this month. At the first major protest meeting organized by the alliance on March 16, the Qazi led from the front while the Maulana decided to stay back at his hometown, Dera Ismail Khan. It is obvious that the religious alliance will remain fractured, as in the past, on the question of Gen. Musharraf.

With another key party, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, deciding to stay off the agitational path, it would be almost impossible for the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and JI, with a dwindling support base, to gather enough boots and flags on the ground to frighten the general.

Another key source of strength for the general is the support he draws from President Bush and his advisers. Although there have been media reports about the possibility of Washington exploring a post-Musharraf scenario, it might not totally reflect the present thinking in the Bush administration. Gen. Musharraf has been, and is, one of the key allies of Mr. Bush in his global war on terrorism, and remains a critical linchpin for possible success against the resurgent al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in the days to come. No other general can offer the virtue of being a known commodity.

Gen. Musharraf, for all his faults and bluster, is quite aware of the economic benefits of playing along with Washington and will be willing to take the extra lengths for his “friend” Mr. Bush.

Interesting fallout from the crisis, coming soon after the surprise inspection visit of Vice President Dick Cheney, has been to help Gen. Musharraf ease the pressure on him from Washington over military operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda holed up in Waziristan and other areas in Pakistan. A domestic crisis can be a good enough reason to go slow on fishing the Taliban waters for Mr. Bush.

At home, contrary to the English media’s projections, Gen. Musharraf’s actions, after the initial befuddled responses, have shown him to be in control of the situation. His apology for the assault on the television station and subsequent clarifications, orchestrated in good measure by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and a Foreign Office spokesman, are indications of a strategic retreat. There are also reports that his advisers have opened a channel to the suspended chief justice to settle things down.

More critical is the support he has from the top military leadership. A civilian protest against a military action is viewed as a threat to the military supremacy in the scheme of things in Pakistan. The corps commanders are, in any case, his handpicked ones and are not likely to oppose him, particularly when they are aware that nothing could be better than a domestic crisis, enlarged on television screens, to keep the Americans out of their hair in Waziristan.

This present bout of crisis is more likely to strengthen the grip of military over the country’s polity, especially when the events have only betrayed the yawning political vacuum that renders any hope of a democratic revival bleak in Pakistan.

Wilson John is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India.

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