The rumours of President Pervez Musharraf’s imminent exit sweeping through Pakistan are an indication that the complex three-man chess game currently in progress on the country’s political chessboard is moving towards a conclusion.



There are two schools of thought on the rapidly unfolding developments, and though the substance is the same, they differ in nuance.


According to the more widely held one, the two other players at the board, Pakistan People’s Party leader Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif, have joined hands against Gen (retd) Musharraf, forcing him to consider his shrinking options.


Mr. Zardari, who seemed amenable to working with President Musharraf just a few weeks ago, was forced to do a U-turn because he saw Mr. Sharif, his junior partner in the ruling coalition, cutting the political ground from under the PPP’s feet with his aggressive and populist stand on the issue of the judges.


Over the last few months, the PPP’s position on restoring the judges, including deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, who were dismissed by President Musharraf when he imposed the emergency last year, has been mixed and earned it the ire of the lawyers but more importantly, of the other increasingly significant power centre in Pakistan, the independent media..


Leaving aside the late Benazir’s one Ifthikar Chaudhary moment – the time she marched to the sacked chief justice’s home last November in the early days of his house arrest and declared that he remained her chief justice and Pakistan’s – the PPP has swung from ambiguity to Mr. Zardari’s personal hostility towards the judiciary for perceived judicial wrongs against him when he was locked up on corruption charges.


The PPP’s mood swings on the judges and the resultant failure of the new government to reinstate them through a parliamentary resolution, as agreed by it and the PML(N) through the much celebrated Bhurban declaration, immediately told on the PPP’s popularity graph.


By withdrawing his party from the cabinet over the government’s failure to keep first one deadline for the judges’ reinstatement, and then a second, Mr. Sharif came out shining politically from the mess as a “man of his word” and “a principled politician”, while Mr. Zardari, accused of deal-making with President Musharraf and his political cronies, cut a sorry figure.


In order to cut his losses, Mr. Zardari lashed out against President Musharraf, describing him as a “relic of the past” and an “obstacle” between the people and democracy. Much to the joy of demoralized PPP cadres, Mr. Zardari said his party did not accept him as a constitutionally elected President.


Quickly, the PPP followed this up with ambitious proposals for constitutional amendments that would reduce the presidency to a figurehead. Chief among them was the deletion of 58 (2) (B), a clause that gives the President powers to dissolve parliament. Mr. Zardari was looking good again. Mr. Sharif rewarmed IS THERE SUCH A WORD? to him, declaring that the PPP leader had agreed with him that President Musharraf needs to be ousted.


A meeting between President Musharraf and Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on May 28 that reportedly lasted over three hours and went on beyond midnight, set the stage for frenzied speculation that the “drop-scene” of this multiple-act drama was about to commence.


Implied in the speculation was that Gen. Kayani had looked his ex-boss “in the eye” and told him plainly that the Pakistan Army would not come to his rescue in either of two scenarios: a) if he should move against the government by using his powers to dissolve parliament and/or declaring martial law; and b) if the government should move to oust him.


If this is all too complex, try unraveling the more nuanced version. According to this political equivalent of a jalebi, Mr. Zardari is still involved in a tough balancing act between President Musharraf and Mr. Sharif. The PPP leader has offered Mr. Sharif the deletion of 58(2) (B) as a sop to keep him on his side. At the same time, he knows his own interests are tied to President Musharraf’s, at least for the moment.


Mr. Zardari wants the stripped-down President Musharraf to continue in office for some more time. Reason: his exit at this stage may prompt a mass exodus from Musharraf’s political creation, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), and into the embrace of its parent party, Mr. Sharif’s PML (N).


That would dramatically alter the political landscape, leaving the PPP at the mercy of Mr. Sharif. The PML(N) may then insist on restoring the judges in the manner it wants, through a parliamentary resolution. That in turn would open the field for a number of adverse possibilities for Mr. Zardari, including a reconsideration of the the National Reconciliation Ordinance, the result of a deal between Benazir and President Musharraf, which has wiped his slate clean of all corruption charges.


According to informed opinion, the PPP – through back channel contacts that include the Americans — has been trying to make President Musharraf accept a constitutional package that would delete most of his powers in return for indemnity and safe passage. But Gen. Musharraf is reluctant to play ball with the PPP, and certainly not as a lame duck president. It was against this backdrop that the meeting between him and Gen. Kayani took place. President Musharraf wanted to assess if he could count on the support of the Army.


Some say that speculation that the replacement of the 111 brigade commander – the Triple One Brigade, stationed in Rawalpindi, has played the key role in all of Pakistan’s military coups – was Gen. Kayani’s answer to President Musharraf.


The replaced brigadier, Asim Bajwa, was a Musharraf loyalist. But those familiar with the working of the Pakistan military are of the opinion that even if he had stayed on, it is inconceivable he would have taken orders from Gen. (retd) Musharraf instead of his corps commander and the Army chief.


As he assesses his options, President Musharraf is also looking for assurances from the U.S that it will continue to back him, and in that respect, two phone calls from the US last week may have offered him some hope. One was directly to him from President George Bush, reiterating US support to Pakistan, and to his role in “strengthening US-Pakistan relations”.


The other came slightly before, at the height of the rumours, and it was from the US president’s National Security adviser, Stephen Hadley, to President Musharraf’s confidante Tariq Aziz. The US official reportedly praised President Musharraf’s role and the two discussed the consequences of his stepping down.


Whichever version you believe, President Musharraf’s choices may depend on two upcoming events in the political calendar. The first is the budget session of the National Assembly, which opens on June 6. This should give an indication of where the PPP and the PML(N) stand in terms of their coalition. The second date, and perhaps the more important one, is June 10 when the Supreme Court Bar Association has said it will launch a “long march” that will begin in Multan, and is to end in the capital, to press its demand for the reinstatement of the deposed judges.


SCBA president Aitzaz Ahsan is a prominent member of the PPP, but also an increasingly marginalised one on account of his differences with the party leadership over the judges issue. His call on lawyers – likely to generate an enthusiastic response as the SCBA is better organised than most political parties in Pakistan – to lay siege to Army House in Rawaplindi, where President Musharraf has continued to live even after stepping down as army chief, is an open dare to the PPP-led federal government.  


More importantly, Nawaz Sharif has indicated that he and his party will join the “long march”. That means the PML(N) government in Punjab will do nothing to stop the march. Rawalpindi falls in the Punjab province.


The questions being asked – they sound over the top now, but may well turn out to be real – is in a situation where the lawyers and PML(N) cadres, led by Nawaz Sharif and Aitzaz Ahsan, are marching on Army House, will the PPP-led federal government stop them or stand by? And if the PPP-led government cracks down on the marchers, what happens to the coalition? Alternatively, if the PPP stands by and does nothing, will the Army swing to President Musharraf’s rescue or not?


For now, the President has firmly put down the rumours that he is stepping down, but this is a fast moving game.All bets are off.