Thu, Nov 08, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Musharraf's martial law may be the last straw

By Hassan Abbas

Desperate to hold onto power, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has discarded Pakistan's constitutional framework and declared a state of emergency. His goal? To stifle the independent judiciary and free media. Artfully, though shamelessly, he has tried to sell this action as an effort to bring about stability and help fight the war on terror more effectively. Nothing could be further from the truth. If Pakistan's history is any indicator, his decision to impose martial law may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Musharraf appeared on the national scene on Oct. 12, 1999, when he ousted an elected government and announced an ambitious "nation-building" project. Many Pakistanis, disillusioned with Pakistan's political class, remained mute, thinking that he might deliver. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the US brought Musharraf into the international limelight as he agreed to ditch the Taliban and support the US-led war on terror.

Musharraf clamped down on some religious militants operating inside Pakistan and also on those fighting Indian forces in Kashmir. As a result, Pakistan was rewarded with US financial assistance and arms. To further his re-alignment, Musharraf sent the Pakistani army into the tribal areas bor-dering Afghanistan for the first time since Pakistan's independence. Operations there against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces brought mixed results.

CONTRADICTIONS

Although the US viewed Musharraf as an agent of change, he has never achieved domestic political legitimacy, and his policies were seen as rife with contradictions. For example, he made alliances with Islamist political forces (who in 2004 voted for constitutional changes legitimizing his position and actions). At the same time, he sidelined moderate, mainstream political leaders while claiming that he stood for "enlightened moderation." A series of ill-planned military operations in the tribal areas further complicated the situation in the volatile border region.

Last March, Musharraf took his boldest step, removing Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudhry. To the surprise of many, the country's legal community organized a nation-wide movement to restore the chief justice to his post. Hun-dreds of thousands of ordinary people demanded the rule of law and the supremacy of the Constitution, emboldening the judiciary and changing the country's political dynamic. In a historic ruling that Musharraf had little choice but to accept, the Supreme Court itself reinstated the chief justice in July.

Subsequently, the energized judiciary continued ruling against government decisions, embarrassing the government -- especially its intelligence agencies. Government officials were held accountable for actions that were usually beyond the reach of the law, ranging from brutal beatings of journalists, to illegal confinement for "national security."

Musharraf and his political allies tried to adjust to this new reality, but their patience ran out when the Supreme Court took up petitions against Musharraf's decision to run for president. According to the Constitution (originally promulgated in 1973 by an elected parliament), a serving military official cannot run for an elected office. Musharraf was not ready to give up his military post, but also wanted to be a civilian president. While he announced that he would leave his military position "if" he was elected president, his track record of reneging on his promises haunted the judiciary.

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