February 24, 2020
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From One Crisis To Another

As the country plunges into confusion, President Leghari tries to weaken Benazir—politically

From One Crisis To Another
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BENAZIR Bhutto’s dismissal by President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari may not have evoked a negative reaction from the people but, contrary to expectations, her unceremonious exit has plunged the state of Pakistan into a deeper crisis. An interim set-up, enjoying virtually no political backing, is struggling to make an impact since taking over on November 5. As confusion mounts, politicians worry about the future—and wonder whether elections will be held as scheduled on February 3.

President Leghari and the new set-up have so far failed to justify the dissolution of assemblies. Leghari seems to be caught up in a crisis of his own making. Under the Constitution, the president virtually becomes the chief executive of the country once assemblies are dissolved. But his selection of ministers for the caretaker government has left much to be desired. From caretaker federal ministers to senior officials in the bureaucracy and provincial governors, almost every appointment is controversial.

Apart from performing its constitutional duty to hold elections on time, the biggest promise on which the caretaker government’s goodwill stands is ensuring accountability of the corrupt. But if its actions in the first few days are any indication, it will not be a quick, clean job. Even after 10 days, deposed prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s notorious husband Asif Ali Zardari was in custody without any charges. Though officially under "protective custody", Zardari is believed to be in real trouble because he is being detained by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), a fact official circles do not want to admit. This means he is being investigated by the army too. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) insiders say unless Benazir strikes a deal with the Establishment, her husband would find it difficult to escape the dragnet this time.

The government is said to be preparing a foolproof case against him. Those close to President Leghari say he is determined to make life difficult for Benazir and her husband and that criminal cases may be filed against them. This is where Murtaza Bhu-tto’s killing in September takes on significant proportions. It has already been alleged that Zardari masterminded it with the help of Intelligence Bureau Chief Masood Sharif. The IB chief has also been arrested and the PPP fears that he might be forced to become an approver against Zardari.

Prime Minister Meraj Khalid has indicated that his government will introduce a comprehensive law which would disqualify many top political leaders. The buzz is that this law will cover both Benazir and her rival and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who too has a lot to account for. Sharif is a big loan defaulter—loans that had been secured from public sector banks when he was in power.

While on the face of it, the disqualification would fulfil the general demand that corrupt politicians be taken to task, an additional objective seems to be to secure Leghari’s future as president. Neither Benazir nor Sharif will tolerate Leghari, especially after he has bared his fangs. The caretaker government is set to introduce the accountability law in the coming weeks, which could influence the next course.

Meanwhile, the president is also trying to weaken Benazir’s bargaining position by aiming to split her party and propping up a separate PPP group. Official positions are up for grabs for anybody who leaves the PPP. In Sindh, Mumtaz Bhutto, known for his antipathy to Benazir, has been made the chief minister, and in other provinces too, particularly Punjab, the search is on for people who could damage Benazir politically.

Leghari’s attempt to isolate Benazir has another dimension too. His interim set-up has no political base. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Sharif), Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s Jamaat-e-Islami and Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf have hailed the dissolution simply because a corrupt government had been removed, paving the way for fresh elections. But none of them is prepared to participate in the caretaker set-up—as yet.

They know the economy is in a mess and the country’s problems are too big to be resolved by a short-term government. Besides, with the country’s economic management in the hands of World Bank employee Shahid Javed Burki, the caretaker government is likely to take some very hard decisions and pass them off as corrective measures. Since they are a non-political lot, handpicked by the president, they can afford to do so. It is the politicians who would suffer in the coming elections, if they join the interim government.

Therefore, politically, the president remains isolated. Those he has managed to woo do not matter at the national level. Leghari has not been able to make a significant dent in the PPP.

Benazir, with little choice in the matter, has started to fight back or is at least appearing to do so. Exploiting the fact that the caretakers had failed to file any case against her government in the first few days, she went on the offensive and, on November 12, accused President Leghari of being involved in Murtaza’s murder and of harassing party leaders. "They are being summoned to the presidency and asked either to join the caretaker government or get disqualified." She also lambasted him for peopling the entire caretaker government with friends and anti-PPP elements. She has declared that any elections under Leghari would not be fair and free.

 

Benazir also filed a petition in the Supreme Court against her ouster and the dissolution of the National Assembly. But PML (Sharif)’s information secretary Mushahid Hussain says it is unlikely that the president’s proclamation will be declared void. "Considering that the chargesheet against Benazir also includes defying the Supreme Court’s judgement, I would virtually rule out restoration of the assemblies."

 If the verdict goes in Benazir’s favour, the political scenario will become all the more interesting. That would leave little moral justification for Leghari to continue. The president, who visited the hospital twice in three days for treatment of a severe kidney pain, is, however, still hunting for PPP dissidents. One of the charges against Benazir’s government is that it had sought to buy off Opposition legislators. Now, the president himself is being blamed for encouraging horse-trading.

 Says Benazir’s spokesman and former minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi: "We have sufficient reason to believe that this government is biased and anti-PPP." The PPP apart, other parties are also disturbed by the conduct of the new government. The fear is that the president will not allow elections if Benazir and Sharif are around.

Mushahid Hussain, is, however, confident that Leghari and Khalid will uphold their commitment. He feels it is not the caretaker’s job to carry out the accountability process: "They can only contribute to the extent that they establish an independent judicial commission which should treat accountability as a continuous process."

 Mushahid also dismisses the electoral chances of another contender—Imran Khan. "He has to establish a party structure. And it is too early for him. Maybe he will get a few seats but nothing more than that." 

Observers feel that if elections are delayed, there may be a realignment of forces. They do not rule out the possibility of the PPP, the PML (Sharif) and other parties ganging up against Leghari. Qazi Hussain Ahmed has already said he does not expect any improvement under the interim set-up.

Says Aziz-ud-Din Ahmed, a political analyst: "If the interim government starts worrying about who might come to power after it is gone, it would only delay the process of transfer of power to elected representatives. The president has already opened a Pandora’s box through an action he should not have taken in the first place. Any delay in holding elections will create more problems for Leghari." Analysts say that having received the full support of the military bosses in dislodging Benazir, he might be trapped. For now, the army is said to be keeping aloof.

There is also talk of seeking an honourable way out of the mess—with the help of the Pakistani Establishment. One of the options being quietly discussed by Benazir’s party and ‘other relevant circles’ is that she should let someone else take over if the Supreme Court restores the assemblies. But only if the Establishment does not have other ideas. "Even if elections are held, ‘they’ would have to set up another team comprising competent people," says a Benazir aide. That can be difficult because the same people are elected to the national and provincial assemblies. Besides, it presumes that Benazir will allow anyone to take control of her party. Knowing her autocratic style of functioning, that seems a remote possibility. 

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