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A Tumultuous Two Weeks for Pakistan

  • November 6: Earliest date for Supreme Court ruling on Pervez Musharraf’s re-election eligibility
  • November 7: Possible date for Nawaz Sharif departure of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for London
  • November 8: Benazir Bhutto expected to return to Pakistan from Dubai
  • November 8: Supreme Court to receive report from Sindh government on Bhutto blasts
  • November 9: Bhutto to hold rally in Rawalpindi
  • November 15: Musharraf’s presidential term expires
  • ~ November 15: Nawaz Sharif returns to Pakistan?
  • Ongoing: Waziristan insurgency
  • Ongoing: Swat clashes
  • Ongoing: Suicide attacks across the country targeting senior military officials, civilian leaders, and military convoys and installations

Pakistan’s short-term volatility will continue, at the very least, till late January to early February. By then — if things go as scheduled — a new, shaky governing coalition will have formed after fresh parliamentary elections.

There are multiple variables — national, provincial, local, regional and global — that could end up shaping Pakistan’s fate in the near-mid term.

As such, the uncertainty is widespread — going all the way to the top in both Islamabad and Washington. But what is clear is that the next two weeks will feature events of paramount significance for Pakistan.

The most important date on the calendar is November 15, which is when Musharraf’s current presidential term expires. Musharraf pledged that, if re-elected as president, he’ll resign from the army, vacate the position of chief of army staff (the most powerful position in the country), and take his second term oath as a civilian.

Musharraf has already been re-elected, but his candidacy remains contested. It’s an asterisked victory similar to Barry Bonds’ breaking of Hank Aaron’s home run record.

In a ruling as convoluted as Pakistan’s constitutional history, the Supreme Court permitted presidential elections (conducted via an electoral college) to go on with Musharraf on the ballot, but deferred deciding on his eligibility to run. Their subsequent ruling on his eligibility, which hasn’t been made yet, will be retroactive. If they decide in the negative, Musharraf will — according to Pakistan’s constitution — remain as president until his successor is elected.

The Supreme Court was originally expected to make a decision by today. During the week, Musharraf’s camp put out suggestions in the media that emergency rule could be imposed. This would give the president license to subvert the current constitutional restrictions and time tables imposed on him — though some elements in Musharraf’s circle stated that the election schedule and most press freedoms would remain unaffected.

Most likely, the emergency rule chatter was merely a means to pressure the judiciary to not only produce a decision favorable to Musharraf, but also in the desired time frame. Supreme Court Justice Javed Iqbal replied that the court won’t be impacted by such threats. Indeed, the Court went even further, announcing yesterday that lawyers’ arguments have taken longer than expected and should a decision not be reached on Friday, proceedings would resume on November 12. Their curious explanation for the week-long delay: a justice will be unavailable due to his daughter’s wedding.

Benazir Bhutto apparently took the threat seriously, albeit briefly. She postponed her trip to Dubai as a result, but then surprised many when she left for Dubai yesterday. The reasons for the change in her decision are unknown, but curiously half a day later, Condoleeza Rice issued a statement opposing the imposition of martial law in Pakistan. In other words, Bhutto likely had assurances from Rice before her departure that Washington wouldn’t tolerate emergency rule.

After Rice’s statement, the Supreme Court changed course, announcing today that it will continue deliberations on Monday and Tuesday. After staving off Musharraf’s pressure tactics and perhaps receiving indirect support from Washington, the court could produce a final decision as early as Tuesday.

The court is expected to rule in Musharraf’s favor. Still, Musharraf would like greater breathing room — a comfortable window in between the court’s verdict and the end of his first term.

More imminent than the latter is the potential departure of Nawaz Sharif from Saudi Arabia. Sharif could return to London as early as Wednesday – and possibly try to return to Pakistan the following week.

Meanwhile, Bhutto expects to return to Pakistan by Thursday the latest and address a rally in Rawalpindi on Friday. Bhutto could address the rally virtually by phone or tape recording, but regardless the Pindi rally is highly significant. Firstly, Rawalpindi the seat of the Pakistani army and neighbors Islamabad. Secondly, it’ll mark her first entry into Punjab (Pakistan’s largest province), which will unsettle her greatest political rivals — the Chaudhry cousins of the PML-Q party. The PML-Q is already concerned about losing partial or total control nationally to Bhutto’s PPP. A serious challenge in Punjab, which they govern, by Bhutto’s party would be an existential threat for them politically.

Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N is expected to have a strong showing in Punjab. It has a wider, more natural support base in the province than the Chaudhries’ PML-Q. It could also welcome PML-Q defectors sensing the turning of the tide. An assertive Punjab campaign by the PPP could further eat up the Chaudhries’ spoils, leaving them with little more than Gujrat. In this scenario, they could conceivably pair up with the PML-N or PPP in a coalition, but the odds of them playing dirty are unfortunately greater.

Musharraf (and Pakistan as a whole) faces a tough two weeks. The political-legal uncertaintity and boiling tensions in Waziristan and Swat, combined with the wave of suicide attacks against the armed forces and senior leaders (including Benazir Bhutto and CJCS Gen. Tariq Majeed) across the country, will crescendo.

While emergency rule is highly improbable, Musharraf could issue and utilize an ordinance that would enable the army to court martial and detain civilians indefinitely and without charge. The ordinance would likely be advertised as targeting militants, but there is a strong possibility it could be used against political opponents. If promulgated, the Supreme Court will likely receive petitions against its constitutionality. Still, the Supreme Court has proven to operate slowly as it is overwhelmed with high-profile cases. This could give Musharraf’s government a decent window in which to make use of the ordinance before it is knocked out.

The next two weeks will be a difficult test for Musharraf. At its end, we might find out what lessons he’s learned from the strife of the past year. Will he conclude that the solution involves not greater centralization of power but an efficient distribution of labor between the military, popular civilian politicians, and the judiciary? Will he conclude that his greatest threat is not the country’s civilian politicians or judiciary, but vigilantees who cut off the heads of Pakistani soldiers and incinerate civilians in the streets? Perhaps we’ll see on November 15th.

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Editor:

Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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E-mail // Tel: +1(202) 713-5897

On Twitter:
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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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