Musharraf is quickly losing his grip on Pakistan

Parliament is expected to confirm a new prime minister on Monday, further isolating Musharraf.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Nominee: On Monday Pakistan's parliament will vote on the nomination of Yousuf Raza Gillani, center, for prime minister. If selected, he'd be sworn in on Tuesday.
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In naming its candidate for prime minister Saturday, the party of Benazir Bhutto has taken a further step toward sidelining Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistan People's Party (PPP) loyalist Yousuf Raza Gillani, jailed for several years during Mr. Musharraf's rule, is expected to easily win the approval of parliament in a vote Monday. With the public still firmly against Musharraf and his allies now out of power, each success of the new government leaves him more isolated.

Musharraf has been an American ally in its war on terrorism, but his weakening position could certainly affect the way the United States battles Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives. The new ruling coalition has stressed the need for dialogue with militants – a position that reflects public opinion but may not be welcome by Washington.

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Increasingly, Musharraf is finding himself only a spectator, a vastly different position from the one he held as head of the Army until November.

On Sunday at a parade celebrating Pakistan's national day, Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, hailed the beginning of a "new era of real democracy" and pledged to support the incoming government. "The journey toward democracy and development we started eight years ago is now reaching its destination."

In Pakistan, commentary about the potential new prime minister has been rife with speculation that Ms. Bhutto's widower, PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari, covets the prime minister's job.

The suggestion is that he named Mr. Gillani, a former aide to the assassinated former prime minister jailed on corruption charges and later exonerated, because he would willingly yield the post to Mr. Zardari in a few months' time.

As co-chair of the PPP – the party that won the most votes in the Feb. 18 election – Zardari was responsible for naming the ruling coalition's candidate for prime minister. But he can not seek the post himself, because he is not a member of parliament. By-elections for empty seats will be held in coming months, however. He could run for one or more of these seats and then become prime minister if elected.

This is possible, experts say. But Zardari's decision to name Gillani – over another, more popular candidate – might simply be a means of consolidating his power, whether or not he tries for the prime ministership.

"The way the announcement was made, he wanted to give the indication that things are in his hands," says Khalid Rahman, a political analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad. "This gives rise to that perception [that he wants to be prime minister], because the real power is not with the prime minister."

Nor is it with Musharraf anymore. As dual president and Army chief of staff, Musharraf once wielded power through compliant allies and military might. Now, his political allies have been routed, and since he left the Army, the military appears to have pulled back from politics.

"All indications are that the Army is not interested" in saving him, says Shafqat Mahmood, a columnist for The News.

By the letter of the Constitution, the presidency is largely ceremonial. The office has virtually no say in the day-to-day affairs of the government. That resides in the prime minister position.

In the coming days and weeks, the new government promises to begin a process that could spell the end of Musharraf's era all together.

Within 30 days of assuming power, the parliament will reinstate the judges sacked by Musharraf when he declared a state of emergency Nov. 2. It is expected to be a time of reenergized lawyers' protests over his rule.

Back in November, the Supreme Court was expected to rule on the legitimacy of Musharraf's October reelection. Before it could rule, Musharraf declared a state of emergency and removed four justices. Some analysts believe the declaration of emergency was to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling against him.

Now, the issue is coming to a head. The PPP has formed a coalition government with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), which campaigned on a platform of restoring the judges. The expectation is that if the judges are restored, they will invalidate Musharraf's presidency.

According to the Constitution, presidents are supposed to be chosen by provincial and national representatives elected after general elections. Musharraf held his own election in October – five months before the general election – to ensure that he would be elected by assemblies loyal to him.

Musharraf has few tools to prevent the ruling coalition. He can disband parliament, but that would likely lead to enormous public upheaval – something the US wants to avoid. This leaves him with only the power of persuasion – "using his position to divide people and manipulate loyalties," says Mr. Rahman.

Yet the momentum for restoration is so great that Wajihuddin Ahmed, a leader of the movement to reinstate the judges, considers it a faît accompli. "I have no doubt about it," he says.

Others agree that the momentum against Musharraf and in favor of the judges would make it hard for the PPP to back out. Says Mr. Mahmood: "There is going to be tension between the government and Musharraf."

• Material from the Associated Press was used in the report.

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