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A Family's Travails Threatens a Nation

December 08, 1996|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg, senior associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, is the author of "Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan" (Cambridge University Press)

ISLAMABAD — Even by the standards of Pakistan's dizzying politics, this autumn has been turbulent. Once again, the country is scrambling to adjust to another interim government; once again, disputatious politicians are risking the country's political future.

One month ago, President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari dismissed his longtime Pakistan People's Party (PPP) colleague, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, dissolved the national and provincial assemblies and called for new elections. He was responding to widespread rumors of rampant corruption; public complaints about mismanagement and nepotism, and evidence that Pakistan was rapidly losing credibility in the international financial community. The arrest of a dozen members of Bhutto's government under preventive-detention orders, and the promise of a thorough accountability, were greeted with relief.

But the presumption of guilt in dissolutions and detentions is already encountering difficulties. Last week, Pakistan's Supreme Court found in favor of the deposed prime minister, rather than the president, when it interpreted the Constitution to favor parliamentary rather than presidential prerogative in the appointment of judges. Because Bhutto shamelessly harassed judges during her tenure, a sympathetic ruling was unexpected. Two petitions to restore Parliament are being watched with anticipation--the chief justice has promised further "momentous" rulings--and the detentions are being challenged as well.

This is Bhutto's second fall from grace and she has quickly donned a familiar cloak of political martyrdom. (Her primary electoral competitor, the Pakistan Muslim League's Nawaz Sharif, was also booted from office.) Bazaars are abuzz with hourly rumors that elections will be canceled, despite daily presidential announcements to the contrary and the Muslim League's enthusiasm for an election it believes it can win, the PPP is coy about its participation, and there is conjecture that the army wants neither Bhutto nor Sharif.

Public suspicion is warranted: Dissolutions have become a wearisome pattern of political life. More worrisome, word on the street today is that democracy is doomed in Pakistan. A country that has survived two long bouts of military rule is now informally reevaluating its prospects for popular rule.

No one claims to know fully what is happening. The bill of particulars released by Leghari when he ordered the dismissal resembles every other document used to dismiss a government here. Although Leghari and Bhutto engaged in a vitriolic "he said, she said" exchange during September, Leghari, nonetheless, seemed loathe to invoke a contestable constitutional provision--written by a previous military dictator--that allows the president to fire the prime minister.

His reticence was notable and merited: The Constitution is internally inconsistent, appearing to enshrine popular rule but, in fact, allowing autocracy to seep into the body politic. The superior courts are equally inconsistent: There are precedents to reinstate the government, affirm dissolution and postpone elections. Bhutto and Leghari seem to be hoping that the courts will settle what elections and parliaments have not.

Confusion about the president's intentions is understandable. The caretakers are a motley crew, largely lacking ideology, relevant experience or organization. (This contrasts markedly with the small "Cabinet of excellence" assembled by former World Bank official Moeen Qureshi in 1993, which seems to have set a standard in the public mind.) Bhutto and her ministers--particularly her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, named minister for investment last summer--were branded a rogue's gallery of self-enriching opportunists, but many officials also assumed to be corrupt have retained their jobs. Meanwhile, Leghari has appointed a Cabinet advisor on accountability, whose dossier is variously described as house-cleaning or witch hunting.

Bhutto has accused Leghari of political partiality, rather than a caretaker's neutrality. She believes he is splitting her party to form his own. Some PPP stalwarts have already left her to join the interim government or a splinter group established by her brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, before he was killed by police gunfire in Karachi in September.

Murtaza's murder shadows the current imbroglio. The poisonous competition between the two Bhuttos over their diverging political views inspires profound public skepticism about the ultimate cause for his death. Suspects have died, evidence has been tampered with and, in a bizarre twist, British detectives assisting the murder investigation were discovered to have been privately contracted (apparently, as part of a cover-up) but paid with improperly appropriated state funds, for which Pakistan's high commissioner in London was arrested.

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