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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Musharraf's Future in Hands of New Pakistani Government

By Gary Thomas
26 March 2008

The advent of a new elected civilian government in Pakistan effectively ends the military rule of Pervez Musharraf. However, Mr. Musharraf still remains president, at least for now. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the new coalition government must grapple with what to do about Mr. Musharraf and his policies, particularly cooperation with the United States in counterterrorism.

The political drama that began one year ago with President Musharraf's dismissal of the country's chief justice has entered a new act. But will Mr. Musharraf leave the stage, or might he be forced into accepting a supporting role rather than the leading one?

The conventional wisdom is that Mr. Musharraf will, sooner or later, exit. He is politically isolated, quite unpopular according to opinion polls and the recent electoral outcome, and has now ceded power to the new elected coalition government headed by Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Mr. Musharraf could be impeached if the ruling coalition can rustle up the two-thirds parliamentary majority necessary to do so. The newly reinstated judges also might be prevailed upon to rule his re-election last year as invalid, thus bypassing impeachment.

But some analysts believe that he might be kept around, at least in the short term.

The Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Asif Zardari, and the PML-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif have a long history of animosity and were united only by their shared antipathy to Mr. Musharraf.

Teresita Schaffer, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, says Mr. Musharraf could survive at least for the short term, but with greatly reduced powers, since that shared distaste for him is the main glue holding the coalition together.

"In my judgment, as long as he is president the coalition will stay together or squabbles will be ended by them coming together," she said. "I'm not sure that that's forever, but for a good chunk of time, anyway. On the other hand, I think that Zardari and Nawaz actually do agree that they want to reduce his powers."

The president's key weapon is the power to dismiss the government, and the new government wants, at the very least, to take away that power.

Analysts also point out that getting rid of Mr. Musharraf would likely spark a bitter political fight between the coalition partners about who would replace him.

Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East affairs and national security studies at the U.S. Army War College, says the key question is whether Mr. Musharraf would accept a greatly diminished role.

"Keeping him in place is better for the opposition. But the danger is going to be, is stroking his ego enough, his vanity enough - if I can put it in somewhat a negative way about him - so that he will play along in this lesser role," he noted. "We've seen it many times in acting, right? [For example take] the great actor or actress who ages into the lesser character roles. Some can do it and some can't. So let's see if Musharraf can do it."

The Gilani government has also indicated that it wants to chart a different course from Mr. Musharraf's on the role of the United States in battling terrorism in Pakistan. On the day Mr. Gilani was sworn in, two top-ranking U.S. diplomats showed up in Islamabad to meet with officials.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States just wants to assess the new government's attitude to U.S.-Pakistani relations.

"It's an opportunity to take stock of where Pakistan is now and also to look forward in terms of where Pakistan is going and where the Pakistan-United States relationship is going," he explained.

Editorial opinion in Pakistani media sharply criticized the timing of such a visit. Teresita Schaffer says the visit sent a wrong signal to Pakistanis.

"Pakistanis know that the issue of domestic militancy is very much their war. They don't need us to convince them of that," she said. "The argument is over what is an effective policy. Unfortunately for us, this argument is influenced by a sense that is very widespread in Pakistan that working with the U.S. aggravated this problem. That in turn led to a political necessity for the new government to show that it is doing something different from the old government."

In a telephone conversation, Prime Minister Gilani told President Bush that he favors a combined political and economic development approach to fighting Islamic militancy in the tribal areas. Schaffer says U.S. policymakers are nervous about any approach that eliminates the military element.

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