Pakistani Cabinet reshuffle may be too little, too late to quell opposition
New Delhi — Pakistan's president, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, has expanded and rearranged his Cabinet to give it a civilian majority. But the move may be too little, too late to arrest spreading political ferment in his country.
His action, intended to blunt the growing demand for free elections, has come just as Pakistan's major, opposition parties have united against him for the first time since he imposed military rule in July 1977.
Restoration of democracy was one of the objectives Zia set for the new Cabinet. He also promised to install an appointed federal advisory council in lieu of an elected parliament.
Zia repeated a pledge to hold elections at an "appropriate time," but he has twice canceled promised national elections and repeatedly stated that the appropriate moment is not yet in sight.
The announcement of the mixed civilian and military Cabinet came against the backdrop of the world's longest-lasting hijack drama to date, now being played out at the Damascus airport.
Pakistani hijackers who have been holding a Pakistan international airlines plane and more than 100 hostages since March 2, first in Kabul and now in Damascus, are demanding the release of political prisoners from the martial law regime's jails.
Authorities in Pakistan have charged that Murtaza Bhutto, son of executed former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, boarded the plane in Kabul and is directing the hijacking. Bhutto's widow Nusrat and daughter Benazir were arrested in a weekend wave of detentions of political figures, although government officials denied that the arrests were related to the hijacking.
Mrs. Bhutto leads the banned Pakistan People's Party, the most formidable of the nine opposition parties, swallowed their past political differences to band together in early February as the "movement for the restoration of democracy."
Their call for Zia's resignation, the lifting of martial law, and free elections to national and provincial assemblies by early May was followed by a rash of violent student clashes with police throughout northern Pakistan. The Zia government swiftly retaliated with school closings, arrests of some political leaders, and travel bans on others. Ironically, it had just succeeded in clamping the lid back on when the hijacking occurred, dramatizing Pakistan's political ferment once again.
Another irony, according to political observers, is that Zia might have co-opted at least some of the opposition if he had made his Cabinet expansion move sooner.
For more than a year Zia has publicly floated the possibility of adding civilians to his Cabinet, and at various stages he was reported to be dickering with interested opposition politicians about joining in. But as one delay followed another, the opposition coalesced -- and finally came out with a joint anti-Zia declaration last month.
The 12 new civilian ministers added to the Cabinet this week are virtually unknown, indicating that Zia had no luck either in prying the opposition apart or in attracting prominent perv sons who could lend the veneer of popular support to his government.
Zia's unexplained delay in naming the much- promised Cabinet may turn out to be a major miscalculation, says an area analyst. By not moving until after the opposition united in February, Zia now appears to be yielding to pressure -- which may further embolden his opponents. A Western diplomat dismisses the Cabinet expansion as "window dressing," too late to be of much use in defusing the demand for elections.
Zia, however, calls the Cabinet expansion part of a process to restore civilian rule by gradualy associating more civilians with the affairs of government hitherto run by the military. Among the questions the 20-member Cabinet will cosider, he says, are whether to allow political activity -- all theoretically banned under martial law regulations -- and what steps to take toward the restoration of democracy.
But Zia has long been on record that elections could cause chaos and instability, indicating that the steps he will allow his Cabinet to consider will be gradual, indeed.