Pakistan's Opposition Parties Look to Each Other

On November 19, Pakistan's Supreme Court — now stacked with government appointed judges — dismissed most of the legal challenges to President Pervez Musharraf's continued hold on power. The actions are close to providing Musharraf with the opportunity to step down as head of the army and instead serve as the country's president for another five-year term. This latest move by is another attempt to maintain the reins of power despite rising domestic discontent with his regime. It remains to be seen if it will work.

As we stated on November 5, "With the November 3 decision to declare emergency rule, Musharraf has alienated the professional, political and Islamist forces in the country. His ability to remain in power comes from the support of the military, which itself appears to be divided." This conclusion has not changed in the past two weeks, although there are faint signs that the political opposition is attempting to coordinate their strategies. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Musharraf's Rule Destabilizing Pakistan"]

The main sign was the November 15 announcement by the chairman of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto were prepared to begin a "joint struggle" to remove Musharraf from power. Sharif and Bhutto are two of Pakistan's most popular politicians — and lead Pakistan's two largest opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People's Party — yet they have a history of enmity that has kept them apart.

As a result, up until recently Musharraf has been easily outmaneuvering a divided and weak democratic opposition. The latest announcement, however, demonstrates how Musharraf's authoritarian tendencies are possibly driving two formerly antagonistic partners together.

Talks between Bhutto and Sharif are still at their beginning stages. It will, therefore, be important to monitor whether or not they are able to coordinate their strategies. For instance, after the November 15 announcement, there have been no new reports of cooperation between the two actors, which could reflect a number of factors, from the divided state of Pakistan's parties to outside influence by the United States.

Nevertheless, if Musharraf were deposed from power and a more democratic government took control, it would not necessarily create political stability in Pakistan. Pakistan's party system has been historically corrupt and prone to factionalism; it repeatedly degenerates to the point of instability, and the military has then stepped in to preserve order. The military has played the role of the protector of unity in the country.

Musharraf's eroding public support, however, could be causing a loss of public confidence in the military, which would be dangerous for Pakistan's future as it would lead to increased factionalism among the country's society, likely boosting support to Islamist political and militant groups.

For the near term, Musharraf's continued rule depends on the support of the military. They have largely remained behind the embattled leader, but it is not clear how long this relationship will last if Musharraf's rule continues to cause domestic instability at home.

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