By Teresita C. Schaffer, Director, South Asia Program
May 18, 2007
As events in Pakistan press forward, it becomes ever more likely that the next few weeks and months will bring major changes in the country’s governance and political structure. Musharraf faces his most intense domestic challenge yet. Paradoxically, a strong push for democracy could be his best bet, though it is a long shot. Scenarios more in line with his past behavior involve more autocratic government, and could involve a change in government.
March 9, the date on which President Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Chaudhry, is now used as shorthand by many, in much the same way Americans speak of “9/11.” His appearances in cities in towns around the country, technically speeches to bar councils, have the look and feel of a political movement in the making.
Chaudhry’s trip to Karachi on May 12 represents another watershed, and that date too is going into political lore, as shorthand for a disastrous turn of events. While Chaudhry was confined at the airport by a tight barricade of containers placed across all access roads, riots broke out in the city. These pitted the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party with a thuggish reputation based in Pakistan’s “muhajir” community, against the opposition parties and the local bar council. Political operatives are often armed in Pakistan. Violence involved many different parties, but the MQM seemed to have started things, and was especially heavily armed. People around the country watched in horror as the riots were broadcast live, continuously, for over four hours. TV stations were attacked, their staff appealed for help on camera, and fires broke out (and were set) in the streets. Dark rumors reported that supporters of Musharraf had instigated the MQM’s action. The fact that Musharraf is a muhajir and has had the MQM as a political ally (although he has never been personally connected with the party) gave an ugly ethnic tinge to these events. At the end, at least 38 people were dead.
Political violence is certainly not new in Pakistan, and Karachi has often been a lawless city. However, May 12 clearly represented another inflection point. At a minimum, it was a fresh instance of the government’s inability to keep order, this time on a grand scale, and it made the army look ineffectual. It further damaged Musharraf’s standing as a broadly accepted leader. And whereas Musharraf’s government has benefited from his critics’ passivity and fatalism, it now confronts opponents who are more passionate and more willing to act.
Musharraf must be concerned, but he is certainly giving no public acknowledgement of this. The reports on his meeting with his parliamentary party have him expressing full confidence, blaming the Karachi riots on “media hype,” and asserting that he will keep his “team” together (meaning both his larger ruling party and his MQM allies). The army too must be concerned; as an institution, it is jealous of its reputation.
Musharraf’s opportunities to pull a political rabbit out of his hat are shrinking. A deal with Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) seems less likely than ever. The religious parties are keeping their distance, and have associated themselves with the protests against suspending the Chief Justice. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with whom no "deal" negotiations had been contemplated, was quoted on the front pages of Pakistani newspapers calling Musharraf "a gone man." The Supreme Court, which has before it a case challenging the validity of Musharraf’s decision to suspend the Chief Justice, must be acutely aware that all of Pakistan – and not just the government – will be watching its ruling carefully, and that there will be a public reaction.
Most of Musharraf’s options are not attractive. He can hope that things will calm down, and that the Supreme Court will delay a decision until passions have cooled. He can crack down on political parties and the press. He could, if disorder continues, declare a state of emergency or martial law, options he has publicly rejected in recent days. But none of these is a sure bet, and each of these brings its own potential complications, including fresh domestic upheavals and international pressure.
There is also a "democracy option," though it would be a reversal of much of Musharraf’s modus operandi. Musharraf could try to cast himself as the man who brings Pakistan its cleanest elections yet. He could announce that he was leaving the army before the elections, and make a major, visible effort to stage truly transparent elections in which he ran as a civilian and allowed the newly elected assemblies to conduct the presidential election. He would have a hard job making this credible, given the way he has prepared for the upcoming elections and the fallout from the judicial crisis. Paradoxically, however, this might give him his best chance to recapture the relative popularity he enjoyed in the past. But it involves taking risks – both with politics and with his relationship with the army – that he has shunned in the past.
Musharraf is still in power, but it is not the same Musharraf with whom the international community has been working for six years, nor the same Pakistan. His willingness and ability to put his full strength behind the anti-terrorism effort are reduced. He is vulnerable to domestic challenges. The United States needs to make policy with an eye on Pakistan’s long-term stability, not just on today’s working relationships. It also needs to be ready to work with alternative scenarios in Pakistan should they come about.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.