Friday, November 23, 2007

The Saudi decision to send Sharif to Pakistan may be part of a bigger agenda

The expected return of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to Pakistan will certainly rattle both President Pervez Musharraf and another former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

The return of Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf overthrew in a 1999 coup to gain power, could bolster the opposition to the President ahead of crucial parliamentary elections on January 8, according to this CNN report.

Unlike Bhutto who returned to Pakistan, hoping for a deal with Musharraf, brokered by the US, Sharif has played his cards well so far by refusing to negotiate with Musharraf. This has diminished Bhutto's credibility with the public, while Sharif’s stock soars.

Bhutto, incidentally, never even whimpered a protest when Nawaz Sharif was deported to Saudi Arabia after his return to Pakistan. It is only when Musharraf, declared emergency in the country, and spurned a deal with Bhutto, that she started talking about opposition unity.

That said, her Pakistan People’s Party is talking of participation in the polls which are being held under emergency regulations which limit civil and political rights, according to this report.

Musharraf meanwhile continues to make a mockery of the institutions in Pakistan. A puppet court, set up in his fashion after emergency was declared, has cleared his election as president even while in army uniform. Musharraf ousted the independent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a few days before he was expected to deliver an order on this petition that was likely to go against Musharraf.

Having ensured a veneer of legality to his re-election as President, Musharraf may now well resign from his army post, and control the army by proxy. Holding the election under emergency will help the President’s party win a majority in the Parliament, thus ensuring his control of Parliament, Judiciary, and the army.

Musharraf has done well for himself. Despite spurning US demands that remove the emergency, he continues to get US support, as the US is totally dependent on the Pakistan army to fight terrorists holed in the North West Frontier Province.

But problems will start for Musharraf once Nawaz Sharif reaches Pakistan. Unlike Bhutto, Sharif knows that at this point his best hopes are with the Pakistani people than in deals brokered by the US. The army may not back Musharraf to the hilt if the opposition against his rule snowballs. The army has indicated to the US that it would like to return to the barracks, according to some reports. That could mean the nemesis of Musharraf, and an opportunity for Sharif who also insists that the army should go back the barracks.

The army is not about to give up its control over Pakistani politics. But under pressure from the US to deliver in the war against terror, and facing public disaffection, as well as dissidence in its ranks, it may decide to lie low for a while. Saudi Arabia, which has allowed Sharif to leave despite protests from Musharraf, will also likely favor a restoration of normalcy in Pakistan, if only to reduce the prospects of Islamic fundamentalists gaining ground while the army is busy with Musharraf's political agenda. If one considers the political proximity of the Saudis to the US, the move by Saudi Arabia to let Sharif go to Paksitan clearly has a wink and a nod from the US.

A challenge for the new government in this eventuality will be to curb the army’s role in politics, to avoid more military coups in Pakistan. That resolution may however be harder to achieve.

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