Musharraf clings to power as Pakistan's main parties struggle to forge alliance

The country's president, soundly beaten in the polls and with his enemies uniting against him, faces protests and demands for the release of the deposed chief justice
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The Independent Online

The motivation of the black-suited lawyer, campaigning noisily in front of barbed wire, barricades and several dozen riot police, could not have been simpler.

"We're gathered here for the defence of justice and the release of the confined judges," said Mumtaz Ahmad, as his fellow lawyers chanted slogans calling for the ousting of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and the release of Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry, whom he sacked and placed under house arrest. "This has been done by Musharraf. We are here for solidarity."

In the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination in December, and the dubious process by which Mr Musharraf became president, few expected last week's National Assembly elections to be fair or peaceful. Remarkably, however, for the most part they were.

With Mr Musharraf's parliamentary allies sorely beaten, there is now optimism among Pakistanis that, for the first time in several years, a genuinely civilian-led government is to take control. Yet the issue of what to do with the President, and the Chief Justice who defied him, could yet derail the agreement that the two successful parties are trying to forge.

On the surface, the issue appears reasonably straightforward. Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), which unexpectedly won the second-largest number of seats, called for Mr Chaudhry's restoration throughout the campaign. Indeed, he made it a point of principle, and many believe that it helped his party ride the anti-Musharraf wave that swept some parts of the country. But Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which secured the highest number of seats, is less concerned about Mr Chaudhry's return and appears keen to keep open its political options as it attempts to build a coalition. Some within the PPP have little time for him.

Pakistan's politics is a three-dimensional game of chess, however. Alliances and agreements that appear solid can quickly evaporate, while bitter rivalries can vanish and a partnership be formed if suddenly the situation demands it.

Mr Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, Ms Bhutto's widower and the PPP's leader, have said that their parties will, for the first time, work together to form a government. But to preserve harmony they have skirted the issue of Mr Musharraf's future, and the restoration of Mr Chaudhry and other judges sacked by the president when they refused to ratify his imposition of a state of emergency.

"We want to form the parliament first and then let the parliament look at the issue of the judges," a senior PPP member told The Independent on Sunday. "We need to have some legal basis on which to do this." Mr Sharif has, for the time being at least, gone along with the PPP line. Surprisingly, the question of who should be prime minister is not causing any friction: various names have been mentioned, but the only sure thing is that it will not be Mr Sharif or Mr Zardari, neither of whom have a seat in the National Assembly.

But the issue of Mr Chaudhry is not going away. The lawyers' movement, which supports his restoration and has been leading protests against the government, has said it is a point on which it will not compromise. Mr Sharif and his aides know he risks losing support if he now changes his position.

Aitzaz Ahsan, a veteran leader of the lawyers' movement who has been in regular contact with Mr Sharif throughout the election period, said: "Iftikar Chaudhry must be restored, for how will we ever have an independent judiciary if a judge knows that acting independently could mean a life behind barbed wire?"

The US and Britain have been urging the two main parties to move swiftly towards forming a government. They say this is more important than becoming fixated on the issues of Mr Musharraf and Mr Chaudhry. The Bush administration has let it be known that it still supports Mr Musharraf, despite the electorate's clear rejection of him. The British government – mindful of being accused of meddling in Pakistan's politics – urges all "moderate parties" to form a government. Such a move would, according to a Gallup poll released yesterday, be the preference for most voters. Forty per cent of PPP voters said the PML-N was their second choice, and 45 per cent vice versa.

Yet for all the diplomatic nuance, many within the lawyers' movement believe Mr Musharraf is being given a lifeline by the West. One of the demonstrators near Mr Chaudhry's house last week was carrying a banner that read: "US – Shame On You."

Yesterday the PPP indicated that if it does not immediately push for Mr Musharraf's ousting – for which it would need a two-thirds majority – it may try to reduce his powers as president. In particular, it said, it wished to change Article 58 (2b) of the Pakistani constitution, which allows the president to dismiss the prime minister and the parliament – a power which has been used against both the PPP and Mr Sharif's party in the past.

Just a week ago, few would have predicted that Mr Musharraf would find himself in a situation in which he could be fighting for his political life.

Mr Ahmad, the lawyer demonstrating outside Mr Chaudhry's house, saw a simple solution. "We are against Musharraf, we are saying he should quit his office," he said. "The people, with their votes, rejected him."

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