POLITICS AUGUST 18, 2008
This afternoon, not long after Pervez Musharraf announced that he'd had his fill after almost nine years of ruling Pakistan, I wandered across Islamabad, to the headquarters of the Pakistan People's Party. The headquarters, which include a residence and a secretariat, are referred to collectively as the Zardari House, named after Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widow. The Zardari House has been the nerve center for the push to oust Musharraf over the past year. The last time I was there, on November 9, 2007, police had trapped Bhutto inside her home to prevent the PPP leader from reaching a rally in the neighboring city of Rawalpindi. Bhutto's supporters had gathered outside, chanting against Musharraf, and yelling: "Long Live Bhutto" and "Prime Minister! Benazir! Prime Minister! Benazir!"
Today, the Zardari House buzzed with excitement once again. In fact, when I arrived, after having been out of the country for the past seven months (I was kicked out in January by Musharraf's government for writing about the Pakistani Taliban), it seemed like little had changed. The ratio of party workers to journalists remained about the same (1:1), and the chants sounded similar ("Long Live Bhutto" "Prime Minister! Benazir! Prime Minister! Benazir!"). Of course, in the aftermath of Bhutto's assassination and numerous threats against Zardari, security in the neighborhood had been significantly beefed up. Visitors had to pass through a metal detector, all the homes nearby had raised their blast walls as much as 40 feet, and police outposts, covered with a lime green plastic shade and patterned with psychedelic blue and fuscia flowers, lined the surrounding streets.
A PPP worker on the scene asked me if I knew the significance of this day. Private TV channels showed scenes of men around the country firing weapons into the air, stuffing one another's faces with sweets, and dancing around and around in circles. "Musharraf has just resigned?" I said, stating the obvious because I was unsure what he was getting at.
"Of course. But yesterday, 20 years ago, General Zia died in a plane crash"--General Zia ul-Huq was the military chief who staged a coup against Bhutto's father and later had him hanged--"and today, General Musharraf has resigned. August is a special month for ending dictatorships."
The country had, in fact, been holding its breath all week, waiting for Musharraf to resign. Less than two weeks ago, Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, the PPP's main coalition partner in the government, announced their intent to push for Musharraf's impeachment. The assembled a team to begin preparing a charge sheet against Musharraf, to eventually be presented in the national assembly. (Amongst charges of subverting the constitution and overthrowing the judiciary, a rumor circulated that Islamabad's only McDonald's was included; it had been built on a federal park, ostensibly off-limits for construction.) The government hoped that the threat of a dirty, prolonged impeachment process would lead Musharraf to pull out early. He called their bluff. On the eve of Independence Day, August 14, the retired commando addressed the nation, amidst speculation that he was stepping down. Instead, he talked about "reconciliation" and soldiered on.
Musharraf, as president, kept at least one arrow in his quiver: his constitutional right to dissolve parliament. The article, numbered 58 2 (B), was the object of much punning recently, with one article headlined "58 2 (B) or not 2 (B)?" But dissolving the parliament requires the president to call elections within 90 days, and judging by the surge in popularity of Musharraf's nemesis, Sharif, that wouldn't have solved Musharraf's woes. And Musharraf had another potential weapon, albeit an unconstitutional one: the army. A combination of ballooning inflation, a mounting insurgency along the western border, and political stagnation led some analysts to speculate that the military might be cajoled to step in and save Musharraf. But when the Musharraf-appointed army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, remained steadfast in saying that the army must remain out of politics, Musharraf's prospects further dimmed. Today he accepted his fate and stepped down.
What next? Within 30 days, the existing national and provincial assemblies will elect a new president. Most believe that Zardari wants to be president, though judging by his preference until now of playing the role of puppeteer, it seems more likely that he would promote--and then work through--someone like his sister, Faryal Talpur. (In the midterm election held to decide who would fill Bhutto's seat in her hometown of Larkana, Zardari tapped Talpur for the ticket. She won.)
More important is the question of how Zardari and Sharif can manage without a common enemy. After all, Zardari spent more than five years in jail during the 1990s while Sharif was prime minister. This evening, while inside the Zardari House, I ran into Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the head of the Jamiat-Ulema-Islam, an Islamic fundamentalist party that joined the PPP-led coalition and supported the impeachment process. Rahman was wearing his signature orange turban.
I asked him how the day's meetings had gone between he, Zardari, Sharif and other top coalition leaders. Could they agree on anything else besides driving out Musharraf? How about restoring the judges that Musharraf had sacked last November during the state of emergency?
Rahman put the palms of his hands together, and then slowly moved them apart. "The two big parties"--the PPP and Sharif's PML--"have different views on that," he said. "We'll have to wait and see." Rahman and I made small talk for a minute. The last time we had seen each other, I was interviewing him for the story that ultimately led to my deportation. "You know, that story came out, and two days later, they kicked me out," I said. Rahman flashed a smug grin. "Yes. But our government let you back in. And just in time to see Musharraf get kicked out."
Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation. His first book, To Live or To Perish Forever, is due out next year.
By Nicholas Schmidle