Sunday, August 31, 2008

The troubled era of Pervez Musharraf ends. New troubles begin

Exit the president

The troubled era of Pervez Musharraf ends. New troubles begin


He had stayed too long, as dictators do. He considered himself indispensable, even as his powers ebbed and support vanished. But Pervez Musharraf, an army coupster turned army-backed president, made a dignified exit on August 19th. In a cogent hour-long address, televised live and delivered with few notes, Mr Musharraf defended his nine-year rule. He denied the charges that the ruling coalition, led by the Pakistan People's Party, was about to impeach him with, accusing it of pursuing a vendetta against him. As he spoke, taut with emotion, its supporters were dancing in the street.

Mr Musharraf's demise had been inevitable since August 7th, when the PPP and its main coalition partner, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), or PML(N), said they would impeach him. A charge-sheet had been drafted, and was to be presented to parliament this week. It included Mr Musharraf's first seizure of power in 1999_at the expense of Nawaz Sharif, the PML(N)'s leader, whom Mr Musharraf imprisoned and exiled_and his second last November, when he declared an emergency as a means to get re-elected president.

The charge-sheet also listed some of Mr Musharraf's contributions to the war on terror. By stomping to Americas fiddle_for example, in marching his army into the north-west tribal areas bordering Afghanistan_Mr Musharraf won $11.8 billion in American aid, most of it military. But many Pakistanis hated him for it. They reasonably blamed his policies for a Taleban insurgency in the north-west and terrorism all over, including a suicide attack on a hospital in the frontier town of Dera Ismail Khan on August 19th that killed 30 people.

The impeachment of its former chief would have embarrassed the army. To ensure it kept its nose out of politics for a change, the government had therefore urged Mr Musharraf to quit. And the army, under its recently appointed chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, did not demur. Nor did America; it called the impeachment an internal issue. In the dying days of his supremacy, Mr Musharraf was therefore reduced to haggling over his retirement plan.

He wants to live honourably in Pakistan, in a mansion he is building outside Islamabad. The PPP's leader, Asif Zardari, the widower of the party's murdered former leader, Benazir Bhutto, could tolerate this. But Mr Sharif, who was no stickler for the rule of law during his own two riotous terms, says the coupster must be punished. For now, Mr Musharraf seems safe from prosecution. But he may yet quit Pakistan for a spell.

The government meanwhile has troubles of its own. Its decision to impeach the president was less a sign of strength than of terminal wrangling between Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif. At the heart of their dispute are 60 judges, sacked by Mr Musharraf during the emergency. Mr Sharif wants the old judges restored at once. And he wants the president's power to dismiss parliament clipped by a constitutional amendment. Mr Zardari is willing to have most of the judges back, but not their irascible leader, Iftikhar Chaudhry. He may also fancy the presidency for himself.

Mr Musharraf goes at a time of alarming instability in Pakistan. With inflation officially at 24%, and food prices rising faster, the economy is stricken. The violent north-west is screaming for more enlightened and steadier policies than the army has applied. But after nine years of being hounded, divided and abused by Mr Musharraf and his men, the politicians' erratic performance is not surprising. Above all, Pakistan needs confidence in its democratic system, including its capacity to keep its army in check. Under Mr Musharraf, this was unimaginable. Not that he recognised it. To the end, he considered himself a promulgator of the essence of democracy. Mr Musharraf referred to this concept in his speech while claiming credit for having boosted women's rights, local governments and other equitable things. He did so, sometimes successfully. But two tawdry facts remained: Mr Musharraf had never won an unrigged election; and had long been unpopular. He has now been slung out by the first fairly-elected government permitted on his watch. That is democratic.

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