Saturday, November 3, 2007

How Musharraf's Move Could Backfire

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency Saturday, citing growing militant attacks and interference in government policy by members of the judiciary. But far from a solution to Pakistan's problems, Musharraf's move to consolidate power has plunged the country into a deeper constitutional crisis and is likely to unleash a wave of new attacks by Al Qaeda-inspired militants, further destabilizing a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror.
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The declaration of a state of emergency by Musharraf, who remains head of the army eight years after seizing power in a bloodless coup, suspended the constitution, blacked out independent television news stations and cut some phone lines. Soldiers and police patrolled parts of Islamabad, the capital.

The emergency declaration came as Pakistan's Supreme Court was expected to rule in the next two weeks on the legality of Musharraf's candidacy for another term as president. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a thorn in Musharraf's side since the President suspended the judge earlier this year only to see him reinstated after massive public protests, was removed from his job and placed under house arrest. Members of the Supreme Court were required to sign a new provisional constitutional order that would mandate the state of emergency. But most of the justices instead signed a declaration calling the state of emergency illegal. "The Supreme Court was going to rule against him," president of the Supreme Court Bar Association Aitzaz Ahsan told TIME by cell phone from jail, where he was taken after being served a month-long detention order. "Constitutionally he [Musharraf] had no right to run as president while staying a general. This is the end of the road for him."

If that prediction is to prove true then much will depend on the reaction of ordinary Pakistanis. Musharraf is deeply unpopular. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out at protests in support of Chaudhry earlier this year. But it's possible that with the ousted chief justice and other anti-Musharraf judicial leaders under arrest popular resentment may not grow sufficiently hot. Another potential rallying point is former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan in October for the first time in eight years as part of a deal with Musharraf that would allow her to run in parliamentary elections early next year. As the leader of the biggest party in Pakistan, it was expected Bhutto would be elected prime minister under Musharraf. But the state of emergency changes that equation again. A London-based spokesman for Bhutto said the former prime minister would lead anti-Musharraf protests. Another former Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif, who briefly tried to return earlier this year only to be almost immediately forced to leave, urged the Pakistani people to rise up against Musharraf.

The state of emergency puts Washington in an increasingly uncomfortable position. The Bush administration has long backed Musharraf as a key ally in the war on terror, while regularly calling for a return to democracy. Musharraf's latest move makes that balancing act harder to keep up. "The U.S. has made clear it does not support extraconstitutional measures because those measures take Pakistan away from the path of democracy and civilian rule," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters soon after the news of the state of emergency broke. "Whatever happens we will be urging a quick return to civilian rule" and a "return to constitutional order and the commitment to free and fair elections."

Lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan says there is no chance of that. "This is the kind of tolerance he has shown for the rule of law in this country," says Ahsan. "Everything he does is illegal. President Musharraf is illegal." But with the independence of Pakistan's highest court now in tatters, it's power, not laws, that matter now.

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