More Musharraf: The Embattled Pakistani President Will Stay in Power

By Rupram, Mohindra | Harvard International Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

More Musharraf: The Embattled Pakistani President Will Stay in Power


Rupram, Mohindra, Harvard International Review


In the immediate aftermath of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's trouncing in the February 2008 parliamentary elections, pundits began speculating that his reign was over. A Reuters article published shortly after the rout was headlined "Pakistan's Musharraf could face end, analysts say." But the resilient Musharraf kept a low profile in the subsequent months, and recent developments have revised Musharaff's chances for continued rule. Structural government reforms that Musharraf instituted, along with internal divisions within pro-democracy coalitions, have stalled his fall from grace. Indeed, barring sudden political cohesion between all elements of the opposition or the immediate reinstatement of anti-Musharraf Supreme Court Justices, all political and structural factors point to Musharraf's prolonged rule, despite the popular antipathy towards him.

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A Tough Year

Musharraf has had an undeniably rocky year. The tenuous popular support he won after toppling the corruptionridden regime of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999 has been whittled away by his support for the US war on terror and his recent authoritarian conduct. His dismissal of the popular and independent-minded Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March 2007 was met with protests from an organized lawyers' movement. Musharraf's popularity also declined after his perceived heavy-handedness in a July 2007 raid on several radicals in the Islamabad Red Mosque, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 people. Musharraf's legitimacy hit new lows when he overreacted to the Supreme Court's threat to invalidate his November 2007 re-election as president--he dismissed several more judges and packing the Court with his supporters. By the late 2007, political instability crippled Pakistan and placed Musharraf in danger of facing open revolt.

The United States, fearing that continued turmoil might translate into less action against al Qaeda in northwestern Pakistan, brokered a political deal between Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto for the February 2008 parliamentary elections. Bhutto's father Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was assassinated by a military dictator in 1979, and her family name has been closely linked to the struggle for democracy. US officials hoped that she might lend new legitimacy to Musharraf's government. Allegations of corruption against Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who also returned to the Pakistani political scene in 2007, were ignored for the perceived benefits of having proponents of democracy contest the elections.

Political instability, however, emerged again when Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007. Many Pakistanis believed that the government had assassinated her, while others blamed the government for not protecting her well enough. Musharraf's government made the delicate situation worse, arguing insensitively that she had died when she banged her head while ducking to avoid the explosion and gunshots that erupted in the crowded street. Her assassination caused a stampede of political support for the pro-democracy forces. Bhutto's political party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), subsequently won the most seats in the February parliamentary elections, while Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) came in second. The results of the election were widely viewed as a rebuke of Musharraf's reign.

Pakistan is now in transition, but lingering questions about the direction of this transition remain. Ostensibly, the recent pro-democracy victories are a positive development. A return to some form of democracy, in which the leaders of the PPP and PML-N are vocal in the public sphere, has quelled civil unrest and instability at least temporarily. Under the surface, however, lies a political dynamic that counteracts the democratic hopes of many in Pakistan. If the principles that guided the pro-democracy forces are not translated into policy soon, these parties may lose legitimacy. …

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