To the surprise of very few, the two winners of Pakistan's elections have agreed to a coalition government - and are saying one of the new government's first acts will be to reinstate sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he had agreed "a common agenda" with the party of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.What a way to shake Musharraf from his podium. Chaudry is on record as saying he thinks Musharraf's re-election was illegal, and the prospect of his court ruling thus was the real reason behind his dismissal in the first case. Such a move not only shows up Musharraf's clampdown in the wake of that dismissal for what it was - an entirely selfish move to hold power. It also paves the way for parliament and judiciary to act with common purpose in unseating Musharraf once and for all.
He had been in talks with Ms Bhutto's widower, Asif Zardari, the new leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Such a government could put renewed pressure on President Pervez Musharraf.
"We will work together to form the government in the centre and in the provinces," Mr Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), said at a joint news conference with Mr Zardari.
He said the two parties had agreed that the country's chief justice, sacked by President Musharraf in November, should be immediately reinstated.
Shortly before the coalition press conference, Chaudry had spoken to lawyer supporters on a smuggled mobile phone - he's still under house arrest.
He told lawyers in Karachi that the recent election result showed that the Pakistani people had "repudiated" President Musharraf and that "unconstitutional measures" taken by him under emergency rule should be reversed.Shortly after he spoke, police used tear gas on protesting lawyers in Karachi and there were other demonstrations in Quetta and Lahore.
"Victory is not far off now," he said.
"There are occasions when a nation passes through defining moments and the Pakistani nation is passing through this defining moment now.
"If we lose this opportunity no one can then change the affairs of this nation ever."
Supporters responded to his speech by chanting "go, Musharraf, go!"
Both the UK and the US administrations have been backing Musharraf in the wake of the elections, and asking the new coalition government to drop their demands for his resignation and Chaudry's reinstatement. Both have painted themselves into a corner by insisting Musharraf was a staunch ally in the "war on terror", a proposition which has dubious validity at best. McClatchy reported yesterday that there's considerable division inside the Bush administration, however, with the split predictably being along Bush ideologue/career State diplomat lines:
The Bush administration is pressing the opposition leaders who defeated Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to allow the former general to retain his position, a move that Western diplomats and U.S. officials say could trigger the very turmoil the United States seeks to avoid.Shariff and the lawyers, however, have made it clear they aren't going to be dissuaded despite intense US and UK pressure.
U.S. officials, from President Bush on down, said this week that they think Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally, should continue to play a role, despite his party's rout in parliamentary elections Monday and his unpopularity in the volatile, nuclear-armed nation.
The U.S. is urging the Pakistani political leaders who won the elections to form a new government quickly and not press to reinstate the judges whom Musharraf ousted last year, Western diplomats and U.S. officials said Wednesday. If reinstated, the jurists likely would try to remove Musharraf from office.
Bush's policy of hanging on to Musharraf has caused friction between the White House and the State Department, with some career diplomats and other specialists arguing that the administration is trying to buck the political tides in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
Officials in the White House and the intelligence community fear that the longer Pakistan remains without a new government, the deeper the gridlock, threatening the progress made in the elections toward greater stability and helping the country's Islamic extremists.
One Western diplomat said, however, that the strategy could backfire if Pakistanis feel betrayed after voting to kick Musharraf from office.
"This is dangerous," said the diplomat.
an aide to Mr Sharif, who is due to meet today (THURS) with PPP leader, Asif Ali Zardari, confirmed there had been pressure to drop its demand for Mr Chaudhry’s return. “The suggestion has been there from Western countries for some time. In fact it was raised by [a senior British official] when he met Mr Sharif in London. [But] we are not willing to compromise on our stance. We feel it would be against the interest of the Pakistani people.”And its highly unlikely that the PPP, which has loudly accused Musharraf of having a hand in Bhutto's death, could survive an about-face on the issue.
This week senior US officials have already met with Mr Sharif and the other leading players in Pakistan’s unfolding political drama, urging an inclusive transition towards democracy. Yesterday morning, a US diplomat based in Lahore spent two hours with Aitzaz Ahsan, leader of the lawyers movement, laying out the US position.
Mr Ahsan, who has been under house arrest for three months, declined to detail the contents of his conversation with the diplomat, but he said: “There is no way other than to reinstate the judges. We are not going to let this pass. We will not let it be accepted as a norm.”
Musharraf is, to borrow a cricket term, on a "very sticky wicket". By backing his soft-dictatorship against the democratic will of the Pakistani people, the US and UK tarnish themselves visibly as nations which only give lip service to their ideals - until democracy doesn't suit them.
Update China Hand at American Footprints, a must-read for anyone following Pakistan's continuing political turmoil, has this to say:
The Bush administration is pushing Pakistan into a corner.Ineed, the Bush administration and conservative pundits were just as pleased as everyone else when Islamist parties nosedived in the Pakistani elections - but now that it's time to support their favorite local general-in-a-suit, they're rolling out the "ZOMG!! Islamofascists With Nukes!" fearmongering again. As China Hand points out, thereby they create the danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s not a happy place.
It’s called Musharraf = Shah of Iran territory.
And it really doesn’t have to be that way.
After all, the opposition to Musharraf comes from respectable, clean-shaven democratic, dollar-worshiping moderates, not the bearded religious fanatics of our dark fantasies.
(My thanks to Kat for research, as always)