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Zardari's War

Author: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
March 2009
Foreign Policy

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Last week, Washington was abuzz with a remarkable act of three-way diplomacy. Upbeat Pakistani and Afghan delegations streamed in and out of government offices, enjoying the rare experience of being included in the United States' policymaking process.

Unfortunately, back in Pakistan, politics was taking a nasty turn, one that could be far more consequential than any of the meetings in Washington.

This time, it wasn't Islamist militants or al Qaeda stirring up trouble. Rather, Pakistan's government--elected in the wake of former President Pervez Musharraf's resignation--has gone to war with itself.

The country's Supreme Court is once again implicated in the action, having disqualified from office the leaders of Pakistan's main opposition party: former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, the sitting chief minister of Punjab. Soon after the court's decision, President Asif Ali Zardari imposed governor's rule, effectively placing his own man in charge of his country's most populous and politically dominant province.

In response, the Sharif brothers accused Zardari of manipulating the court and have vowed to take their case to the streets. This is no idle threat. According to public opinion surveys, Sharif is now Pakistan's most popular politician. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), might well succeed in mobilizing violent street rallies that would test the capacity of state security and could even deliver a deathblow to the coalition government in Islamabad.

In short, Pakistan's major political leaders are now in a no-holds-barred contest for political power.

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