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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Nawaz Sharif new principles frustrate the military

Six months ago, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s opposition leader, took the moral high ground in national politics, throwing his weight behind a campaign for the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry that came within hours of toppling the government of Asif Ali Zardari, the president.
Today, Mr Sharif now finds himself under fire from well-entrenched foes – some in the presidency, others within the military hierarchy.

Aides of the president are allegedly behind the dredging up of Mr Sharif’s tainted past as a protégé of the military’s Inter Service Intelligence directorate and his alleged involvement in conspiracies to overthrow the 1988-1990 government of Benazir Bhutto, the since assassinated former prime minister.

Meanwhile, public enthusiasm for his party has begun to dwindle because of the revelations and a series of sleazy episodes involving Muslim League politicians, news of which was leaked to Pakistan’s voracious cable news networks by Mr Sharif’s erstwhile military patrons.

The scandals have ranged from credit card theft and forgery of education certificates, which forced the party to seek the resignation of two members of parliament, to assault, kidnap and rape, although only the forgery case has been substantiated.
The parallel campaigns have dented public enthusiasm for Mr Sharif’s party and public faith in Pakistan’s fragile democracy, reviving the “both parties are thieves” sentiment that facilitated the overthrow of Mr Sharif’s government in October 1999 by Gen Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president in September 2008.

At the heart of the parallel smear campaigns is Mr Sharif’s push to consolidate his moral leadership by pressing his party’s demand for the trial, on treason charges, of Mr Musharraf and the eliminating of clauses that he had added to the constitution.
That has brought Mr Sharif into conflict with Mr Zardari, who resents the renewed onslaught against his authority as president, which would be hugely reduced by the proposed constitutional amendments, and with the military.

While he remains the military’s civilian politician of choice because of his deep-rooted support in Punjab province, from where most of the military is recruited, the military is angry at his insistence on the persecution of Mr Musharraf, because it would erect a potentially lethal hurdle for the plotters of any future coup d’état. (Pakistan has had four in 62 years of independence.)

Hawks within the military and Muslim League alike had hoped the attacks allegedly launched by aides of the president would infuriate Mr Sharif to the extent that he would launch another campaign to force the president and, subsequently, the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition government, out of office. 
Indeed, tensions flared last week, prompting the Muslim League to issue a 48-hour ultimatum demanding a cessation of the smear campaign against Mr Sharif, and it seemed that political chaos was imminent.

But within 24 hours of the ultimatum, the tensions between the government and opposition camps suddenly dissipated and, addressing a national convention of his party on Monday, Mr Sharif issued a definitive proclamation. “I will not support any attempt to remove the government by extra-constitutional means. Instead, I will be the one to block any such move,” he said.

The Nawaz Sharif of the 1980s and 1990s would not have hesitated to collude with the military to grab power, but eight years in exile, spent largely in Jeddah after the Saudi government brokered a deal for his release from jail, have changed him as a man and and as a politician.

Once susceptible to the conspiratorial urges of party hawks and intelligence operatives, Mr Sharif has developed a set of political principles, based upon the exclusion of the military from national politics, that overrides the temptation to exploit chinks in the Zardari armour, unless it is at the ballot box.

Those principles were at the heart of Monday’s proclamation and immensely frustrating to the military, which is straining to reassert its historical role as arbiter of political power ahead of March 2010, when Gen Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief of staff, enters the lame duck phase of his tenure with only eight months of service left.

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