By Nahal Toosi
Associated Press Writer / July 8, 2008
Associated Press writer Manal Ahmad contributed to this report
(see USA Today)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – What a difference 100 days make.
Pakistan’s new coalition government came to power after February’s elections on a wave of public sympathy and hope. The two main parties pledged to work together on a range of issues, including the quick restoration judges fired by common rival President Pervez Musharraf.
But some 100 days after formally taking charge, the coalition is in disarray. The second-largest party left the Cabinet amid disputes over the judges and the fate of Musharraf, the former army chief who had dominated Pakistani politics since seizing the reins in a 1999 military coup.
Multiple power centers have emerged since the new civilian administration took over, making it unclear who is in charge. Critics worry the wrangling is distracting political leaders from tackling the sinking economy and relentless militancy in the South Asian country of 160 million.
“The kind of coherence and focus and directness that we were expecting would emerge with a common sentiment for the restoration of democracy has not really come about,” political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais said.
Upon becoming prime minister in March, Yousuf Raza Gilani laid out a series of broad goals for the first 100 days. Tackling terrorism was the top priority.
But although violence is down since last year, militants appear to have gained sway in large parts of the northwest border along Afghanistan amid the political confusion. On Sunday, an attack blamed on a suicide bomber killed 18 people, mostly police, in the capital, Islamabad.
The new administration has sought to strike peace deals with militants, an approach that has faced criticism from the U.S. which warns it could give time for militants to regroup.
In late June, as militants increasingly threatened the key city of Peshawar, the government shifted to battle mode, deploying paramilitary forces to Khyber tribal region. The offensive, however, led Pakistan’s top Taliban leader to suspend peace talks with the government.
The U.S. appears concerned that Pakistan’s political infighting is distracting it from battling terrorism. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher pointedly said in a recent visit that the government needs to “focus” on critical issues, including militancy.
Farzana Raja, a leading member of the largest coalition party, the Pakistan People’s Party, insisted the government is progressing. She noted the overall drop in violence and plans for housing and development projects. She also pointed to a much-criticized PPP proposal aimed at curbing Musharraf’s authority and restoring the judges through constitutional reforms.
“It was not that we will complete everything in 100 days — of course, it’s not possible,” she said. “We don’t have a magic stick that we can do what the previous government could not do in nine years.”
Requests for an interview with Gilani were denied, but aides said he planned a speech to detail the government’s accomplishments so far.
A vague statement released by his office assessed that in the first 100 days, “the government has taken numerous steps for providing food and energy security to every citizen in both short and long term perspective in addition to restoring the confidence of the investors.”
Sadiqul Farooq, a spokesman for the PPP’s disgruntled coalition partner, the Pakistan Muslim League-N of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said the government has accomplished less than it could have because of the PPP’s intransigence on the judges issue and Musharraf’s future.
Musharraf ousted dozens of judges last year during a burst of emergency rule, a move that appeared aimed at blocking legal challenges to his rule. The ousters infuriated Pakistanis, especially the nation’s popular lawyers’ movement, and strengthened opposition to the increasingly unpopular president.
The PML-N has argued the judges could be restored via an order from the prime minister, and has sought to de-link their return from a constitutional package. The two parties missed two deadlines set within the first 100 days to restore the judges.
The PML-N also wants Musharraf ousted or impeached, while the PPP has taken a softer tone. Still, Farooq said the ultimate blame for economic and other problems rests with decisions made when Musharraf and his allies were in charge.
“And he is still there, he is still there,” Farooq said of Musharraf, who refuses to resign.
For ordinary Pakistanis, the political squabbling is growing unbearable as the sinking economy makes it harder to feed their families or fill up their gas tanks.
“The first problem they should take care of is inflation,” said Mohammad Ejaz, 32, a butcher. “Then we’ll see about the judges. What are the judges going to do for us? Will they bring down the prices? Will they come deliver flour at our homes?”
The coalition has taken some steps, such as increasing wheat imports, to ease burdens, but it also faces yawning budget and current account deficits and hasn’t escaped rising fuel costs. Meanwhile, power shortages are crippling industry and irritating citizens.
Although some Pakistanis recognized economic problems would take time to fix, many felt the coalition was too distracted by the judges and Musharraf to tackle the issues effectively.
“All the political leaders are playing games with each other,” said Saba Aziz, a 17-year old college student. “Our Pakistan is going down just because of our leaders. They are selfish.”
Analyst Shafqat Mahmood said if he could give any advice to coalition leaders, it would be to “do away with the numerous centers of power” so people would at least know who is in charge.
The military, leaders of the two main political parties, the prime minister and the president are among the power points. Often it is uncertain who is making the ultimate decisions on key issues such as peace deals with militants.
Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower who now leads her political party, is widely considered Pakistan’s most influential man and the true power behind Gilani, even though he is not elected.
The PPP came to power in part on the wave of sympathy that followed after Bhutto’s December assassination. Analysts say it has squandered much of the goodwill since.
Farooq, of the PML-N, said his party had no intention of joining the opposition for now. Still, how much longer the coalition will survive is anyone’s guess.
“I think it can last 100 days, but I don’t think it will last 200 days,” Rais said. “It’s really frustrating to see what has happened.”