Early Elections Seen as Possible Solution to Pakistan’s Political Crisis
By Saeed Shah for The Miami Herald
Pakistan’s political crisis, which pits its president against determined opponents in foes in Parliament, the Supreme Court and the military, is likely to reach fever pitch on Monday with a confidence vote scheduled in Parliament and hearings scheduled in two critical court cases.
The crisis is so intense that President Asif Zardari’s administration may be willing to call elections for as soon as October, according to members of his ruling coalition and its advisers. But that may not be enough to mollify the opposition, which wants earlier elections, or the country’s powerful military establishment, which is believed to be trying to force a so-called “soft coup,” under which Zardari, a critic of the military’s traditional dominance of Pakistan, would be forced out by Parliament or the courts.
The threat of an outright coup also hangs over the crisis, if the politicians cannot find a way out or the court proceedings reach absolute stalemate.
Whether the government can reach agreement with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif is unclear. Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party doesn’t want to announce elections until after voting in March for a new Senate, which the PPP is widely expected to win. But Sharif would like the new elections to be in the summer, perhaps June, which would require an earlier announcement.
“There is no other option for the government to come out of the current crisis without elections,” said an adviser to the PPP leadership, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, as did the other coalition members. “It is in the interests of the PPP to reach an agreement with Nawaz.”
The PPP rules with three major coalition partners, but the alliance is looking shaky. Two of the parties, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, have distanced themselves somewhat from the government.
A senior member of the coalition said the parties so far have agreed internally only to a general election to be held in October. That would be just a few months before the February 2013 date when Parliament would complete its five-year term and elections would have to be held anyway.
An early election should also placate the courts and the military. A supposedly neutral caretaker government would have to be installed to oversee a three-month electioneering period.
Another coalition member said: “It is 100 percent certain that there will be elections in 2012. The only solution is elections. It doesn’t matter whether they are held in June or October.”
Zardari’s coalition itself brought Monday’s confidence vote resolution to Parliament, cleverly wording it so that it asks for support not for the prime minister or even the government, but for democracy. That makes it difficult to oppose.
But the PPP’s troubles in Parliament are only one of the fronts in its battle for survival. The courts and the military are both maneuvering against the party’s leaders, with two explosive cases coming up for hearings Monday.
The first stems from a 2007 decree by President Pervez Musharraf that granted immunity from prosecution to Zardari and other exiled PPP politicians in an effort to persuade them to return to Pakistan to participate in elections that Musharraf was being pressured by the United States to hold.
The Supreme Court later ruled, however, that the decree was illegal and demanded that the government reopen corruption charges against Zardari stemming from the time when his wife, the assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister.
The government declined, however, and now the court has summoned the government to explain its actions. The court could declare Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in contempt of court, which would in effect remove him from office.
The other case involves the the scandal in which a judicial commission is investigating allegations that Husain Haqqani, a close Zardari adviser and former ambassador to the U.S., wrote a memo that was passed to U.S. officials in May. That memo offered to replace the Pakistan military’s top officials in return for U.S. support should the military attempt to push Zardari aside.
Haqqani, who was forced to resign, says he had nothing to do with the memo, which the military has said amounted to treason.
The judicial commission may take testimony this week from an American businessman, and occasional news commentator, Mansoor Ijaz, who claimed that he had delivered the memo to U.S. officials, in a column that appeared in the British newspaper the Financial Times in October. Ijaz has said he will show up as a witness, though he apparently has yet to receive a visa to enter Pakistan.