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Pakistanís Tricky Transition

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
November 29, 2007

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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has stepped down as army chief and is set to rule as a civilian president (WashPost) for the next five years. On December 16, he is also expected to lift the state of emergency (BBC) he imposed earlier this month before parliamentary elections set for early January. But questions remain over the country’s transition to a viable democratic system in which the judiciary, media, and civil society can function freely. Concerns also linger over the power vested in the army and what role the new army chief will play, given the history of army chiefs’ interference in politics.

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, two former prime ministers returned from exile, remain Pakistan’s most prominent political leaders. Yet they are tainted in the public eye. Both are tied to charges of corruption and Bhutto’s image has been tarnished for her aborted attempt to enter a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. The United States, Musharraf’s main international backer, had been hoping Bhutto could provide the democratic face to Pakistan’s politics. Sharif’s past alliances with Islamist parties as well as his reluctance to partner with the United States in the past worries Washington (WSJ).

They remain divided on the issue of whether they should participate in January’s elections. So far, Bhutto seems to be leaning toward having her Pakistan People's Party run in the upcoming polls, while Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League is leaning toward boycotting (Newsweek.com) the vote if the emergency is not lifted. Sharif has also demanded reinstatement of the judges Musharraf dismissed on the eve of the emergency.“Elections will be neither free nor fair,” writes Husain Haqqani, director of Boston University's Center for International Relations, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “unless Mr. Musharraf does much more to restore the rule of law, and repair the damage he's done to Pakistan's civil society and constitution.”

While Musharraf may have given up his army uniform, he still has the authority to dismiss elected governments. And the new army chief was handpicked by him. General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, former chief of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, is considered close to Musharraf and is believed to support removing the army (IHT) from major involvement in political affairs. But Musharraf’s farewell speech makes it clear that the military remains all-powerful (BBC). “Without this army, the entity of Pakistan cannot exist,” he said. Washington praised Musharraf’s move (AFP) with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling it “a good step, a good first step.” U.S. officials were also quick to ensure they were keyed into the new army commander. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, on his recent visit to Islamabad, spent more time with Kiyani than with Musharraf.

The next prime minister will confront the challenge of trying to deal with an army whose role in governance has expanded (PDF). Besides the army, growing militancy in the country as well as a deteriorating security situation along the border with Afghanistan is also becoming a serious concern. Observers say it is not only inability but the unwillingness of the Pakistani military that is helping militants to gain ground.

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