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Kamal Siddiqi

Ominous future for Pakistan

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kamal Siddiqi
November 29, 2007

IT MAY SEEM that by imposing emergency in Pakistan, President General Pervez Musharraf has been able to stop the country from spiraling into a state of anarchy and religious violence. Musharraf calls it a bitter pill that he was forced to swallow and said he did it in the interest of the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Political events in Pakistan are moving fast, but one can only wonder whether they are going in the right direction.

Pakistan's National Assembly has been dissolved and a caretaker administration has been put into place. The general elections in January will choose a new prime minister and parliament, which will run under President Musharraf for the next five years. Musharraf resigned as army chief this week and will be sworn in for a second term as president, but this time as a civilian.

This comes after the hand-picked Supreme Court predictably validated his candidacy and endorsed his election as president for the next five years. Musharraf now hands over reigns of the army to a full-time military commander, General Kayani. The question for Kayani, who has also served under Benazir Bhutto, is whether to move the army away from the political arena, or keep on being a major stakeholder in national affairs.

Musharraf has been able to put into place a series of steps that will ensure "full democracy" in Pakistan, something that he has been promising for the past seven years. There is, however, a good chance that the plan will get derailed.

As a caretaker government takes charge to oversee elections, the Pakistan military is engaged in a military offensive in the Swat valley, where Islamic militants have taken control of large parts and declared their own government. Analysts believe that the challenge will not be wresting Swat from the hands of the militants but coping with the fallout of this action. Military officials said that over 600 military personnel have died since the operation in the Lal Masjid earlier this year. Most have been killed in suicide attacks, which are seen as revenge killings for the military's storming of a mosque in the center of Islamabad.

The rise in the number and intensity of terror attacks has been a source of worry not only for the government but also for Pakistanis. Many are wary of taking part in an election process that is under threat of sabotage from right-wing militants. There have been threats that the militants will bomb the ballot box.

In October, several hundred died in a bomb attack at a rally for Bhutto. Bhutto claimed the attack was the work of intelligence agencies within the government. She did not blame militants. This adds another twist to the deteriorating security situation in the country.

Another challenge for Musharraf comes from within. There are elements in his government, and some say within his military, that want to see him go. Many quarters opposed the political understanding that Musharraf was reaching with Bhutto as part of an effort to widen his base of political support. But the problems with the judiciary and the imposition of the emergency has put that understanding in cold storage. However, the opposition from within about how Musharraf is dealing with the political crisis in the country and also the manner in which the armed forces are waging the war on terror seems to be growing as well.

Finally there is a rise in public sentiment against the Musharraf government over the imposition of emergency and the manner in which the government has cracked down against lawyers, politicians, and members of civil society. Political parties are gradually gathering strength to protest against the military government. If this happens, the Musharraf government may become shaky. Historically, military governments in Pakistan have been unable to fight massive public opposition for long.

Therefore, until elections are held in January, there are many in Pakistan who are seeing developments on a day-to-day basis. Before speculating on who will win the elections, the discussion in the country is whether they will be held at all and how the government will manage the situation until then.

Kamal Siddiqi is editor of reporting at The News in Karachi.

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