Pakistani military government's credibility in limbo

Ousted Prime Minister Sharif's exile leaves many Pakistanis frustrated over the decision to set him free.

With former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's exile to Saudi Arabia Sunday, political analysts are saying that Pakistan's military government is certain to face intensifying demands from the public in the coming weeks for a transfer of power to civilians.

Mr. Sharif, in military custody for the past 14 months, left on a Saudi Arabian jet with family and belongings to begin life in exile, after the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf pardoned Sharif for a conviction connected to the 0ct. 12 bloodless coup. Sharif agreed to stay out of politics for 21 years, and to surrender $8.3 million in assets in a settlement over the military's allegations of corruption.

A government statement said that the move was in the "best interest" of the country. Officials said that Sharif needed immediate medical care at an overseas hospital. Kulsoom Nawaz, his wife, said last week that her husband had high blood pressure and complained of chest pains.

Western diplomats in Islamabad said Pakistan yielded to pressure from Saudi Arabia because it gives substantial economic assistance to Pakistan. The Saudi interest in releasing Sharif from the Pakistani prison had been expressed several times since Pakistan's military coup last year.

The hope among some analysts is that the military's reason for remaining in charge is now compromised. Not only because Sharif and another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto - the two most tainted Pakistani politicians - are out of the country, but because the military has demonstrated that it's not capable of pressing ahead aggressively with its anticorruption campaign.

Nasir Saleem, an investment officer at a leasing company, shared the popular resentment over Sharif's departure. "Unfortunately, a new precedent has been set. You can rip off the country and then safely leave the country," Mr. Saleem says.

Some in the government think that Sharif's departure may help bring some stability to the country. But "Nawaz Sharif's exit will cause a serious setback to the government's claim that it's pursuing an aggressive anticorruption drive," says Lt. Gen. Talat Masood (ret.), a newspaper columnist. "The [military] may now have to move toward giving way to a new civilian regime."

Sharif's absence leaves the two mainstream political parties - the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) - with leaders in exile. Ms. Bhutto, exiled leader of the PPP, was convicted of corruption and sentenced earlier this year to five years in prison and seven years of disqualification from running for political office.

Since 1988, when Gen. Zia ul Haq, a previous military dictator, died in an aircrash, Sharif and Bhutto had taken turns being elected to political office. But each was prematurely sacked on charges of corruption.

The military's seizing of power has once again taken Pakistan back to military rule. Politicians say that frequent military interventions have prevented Pakistan from nurturing a parliamentary democracy because political systems have never been allowed to flourish. The military has ruled the country for 24 of its 53 years.

Aftab Shaban Mairani, a former defense minister, says that Pakistan faces growing international isolation as a reaction to the military rule. "Most countries outside Pakistan will prefer to deal with a civilian government," Mr. Mairani says. He adds that Pakistan needs to seek more international goodwill to be able to continue borrowing and service $38 billion in foreign debt.

While the military has so far given no indication of its next move, Pakistanis who feared that Sharif's life would continue to be in danger as long as he remained in Pakistan were relieved to see him leave. Many still have bitter memories from the 1979 hanging of the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a popularly elected prime minister. Mr. Bhutto was arrested in a military coup in 1977 and hanged two years later on a controversial charge that he ordered the assassination of a political opponent.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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