Can Musharraf take a back seat?

Parliament gave Pakistan's new Prime Minister a vote of confidence Monday, but power may lie elsewhere.

In theory, Pakistan's new prime minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, is the nation's leader, its highest elected official, the man with the mandate to rule.

In practice, the situation is more complicated.

Since his election on Oct. 10, Prime Minister Jamali has been operating under the larger shadow of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the man who for the past three years singlehandedly ruled Pakistan. Many Pakistanis say he still does.

According to last-minute amendments to the country's Constitution, inserted before the October elections, the president has the ability to dismiss Jamali and his elected government at any time. General Musharraf has also indicated in recent speeches that the Jamali government will continue a program of economic reforms begun by his military-ruled government, as well as his policies on rival India, nuclear-weapons proliferation, the war on terrorism, and the long-brewing land dispute over Kashmir.

With all the big issues spoken for, it's hard to see how the Jamali government can make its mark.

"The setup is such that Musharraf will call the shots on foreign policy and security and the elected government handles everything else," says Dennis Kux, a former US diplomat in Islamabad, and now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. As president, Musharraf can dismiss parliament and the prime minister. As chief of the army, he has the instant loyalty of the country's most powerful institution. And as head of the national security council, he controls most of the nation's foreign policy decisions.

But unless he cedes some of his powers, the whole notion of Pakistani civilian rule could be in jeopardy. The country has been under military rule for half of its 55-year history; many previous civilian governments have been stripped of power by military rulers. Over time, this back-and-forth has eroded citizens' faith in the possibility of elected rule. Observers now worry that if the military brings down the Jamali government, voters could lose heart altogether.

But so long as he complies with Musharraf's wishes, Jamali may be safe: Past Pakistani politicians who have dared to break with military policy have usually been dismissed, says Mr. Kux. Prime Minister Mohammad Junejo, for instance, spent his first few years in power under the thumb of a powerful military dictator who had served as president for a decade. Though he "eventually split from General Zia-ul Haq [in 1988], it took two or three years for Junejo to assert himself," Kux says. "I think it's less likely now."

Today, with the country a crucial but uneasy partner in the war on terrorism, the US is monitoring the Jamali government's stability closely. But that stability is unlikely to last, if past history and current political trends are any gauge. Public cynicism toward politicians - apparent in newspaper columns and popular TV satire shows - has recently become so stark that there seems little hope among ordinary Pakistanis that their current government will be any different from past ones.

The critical role Musharraf and his army are now playing in the war on terrorism - rounding up Taliban and Al Qaeda members along the Pakistani-Afghan border - has extended the reach of their powers and their international credibility, at the expense of civilian rule. But even so, any civilian government taking over Pakistan would have faced massive difficulties. After spending billions on its ruinous 55-year rivalry with India, and squandering billions more on corruption-riddled domestic building programs, Pakistan has been teetering at the brink of collapse for nearly a decade.

As of 1999, the country owed so much - $69 billion, or 99.3 percent of its gross domestic product - that the International Monetary Fund demanded that it make massive cuts in social spending. But if Jamali looks to the military to cut its budget - which makes up nearly one-quarter of the nation's total - observers say he may find himself looking for a new job.

"Pakistan's military expenditures hit every prime minister, because they consume too many resources," says M. Afzal Niazi, columnist for The Nation, a leading Pakistani newspaper. "The only reason you can have to cut back on that spending is if you can have settlement with India. If Jamali ever goes that track, he's in trouble" with the military. But those who know Jamali say he is unlikely to go that road. "Jamali's a real India basher," says Mr. Niazi.

For the past three years, Musharraf's direct military rule has made it relatively simple to maintain social order while cutting social programs. Though he never declared martial law, his government regularly put activists who protested too much under house arrest for months at a time. For the new government, the task of maintaining social order during continued government cutbacks will likely be more difficult.

Judging by Jamali's past, as a prominent regional politician in the Western state of Baluchistan, supporters say he is up to the task, so long as the Pakistani military lets him finish the job. If he lasts, Jamali will be the first Pakistani prime minister to complete his five-year term.

"Jamali is pragmatic and ambitious, as most politicians are, and he'll go along with Musharraf and his team, especially on relations with the US," says Fakher Imam, a former parliament Speaker and member of Jamali's Pakistan Muslim League. "My complaint is with Musharraf. If he had walked away after two years, he would have been at least the first [military ruler] to do so. But what little power he has, he's not willing to let go of even that."

But among the Pakistani military, there is a perceptible sense of relief that the burdens of visible responsibility - if not the actual reins of power - have shifted to civilian shoulders. "The elected government is in place; they control everything," says Musharraf spokesman Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, adding that Musharraf is intentionally taking a back seat and not giving interviews, because that would look "as if he's the one laying down the rules."

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