Musharraf's hand stronger after prime minister quits

Pakistan's Prime Minister Jamali resigned Saturday, paving way for a trusted associate of the general.

The resignation over the weekend of Pakistan's prime minister strengthens President Pervez Musharraf's rule and may make it less likely that he will relinquish his role as Army chief later this year.

Mir Zafrullah Khan Jamali, a veteran politician, stepped down following a meeting with General Musharraf in Islamabad. His resignation is unlikely to affect Pakistan's commitment to the US-led war on terrorism or peace talks that are under way with India. But it is being seen as a blow to opposition parties who have struggled to gain a more secure footing since the country's 2002 elections.

"It seems that Jamali might not be supporting fully the plans of General Musharraf," says Shamim Akhtar, a political analyst. "General Musharraf, by taking such a drastic step, might be indicating he will send anyone packing who is not fully supporting him. We may see actions against the religious extremists as well," he says.

The head of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e Azam group), Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, has been appointed as interim prime minister. But he is expected to be replaced within a couple of months by Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz, an ex-Citibank executive and trusted ally of Musharraf.

The Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP), led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said that the change "demonstrated that the military leadership never accepted the civilian and political setup, even if that setup was artificially created by them."

Jamali was not a popular prime minister during his 19-month tenure and was widely seen as a compromise candidate after the 2002 polls.

Ruling party sources say key factors in his resignation were his failure to change discriminatory laws against women and a controversial blasphemy law.

But Jamali more than once said that he expected Musharraf to fulfill his pledge to remove his military uniform by the end of the year, and reportedly took a position on controversial issues like the formation of National Security Council (NSC).

Musharraf heads the newly created 13-member NSC with four military figures who sit alongside civilian leaders. The council will advise the government on security matters and other issues of national interest.

But Musharraf is now at loggerheads with the religious extremist alliance of the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) over both his role as Army chief and the creation of the council.

In December, Musharraf struck a deal with the alliance to get controversial constitutional amendments passed by the parliament. Under the compromise, he had to pledge to doff his military uniform by the end of this year. But it appears Musharraf is reconsidering his decision, with ruling legislators' support.

The first session of the council held last week was boycotted by alliance leaders and the chief minister of the Frontier Province, where extremists rule. They said their recommendations were not incorporated, including the demand that the prime minister should head the council.

Siding with the US in the war on terror has carved an important role for Musharraf and earned him an image in the West as a liberal and peacemaking ruler. But the opposition often complain that the Western attitude has enabled the military ruler to get away from controversial domestic decisions.

After coming into power in a bloodless coup in 1999, Musharraf held elections in October 2002, but orchestrated a role for himself and announced controversial amendments before handing over the power to public representatives.

He will remain as president untill 2007, and holds the post of the chief of army staff. Through the amendments, he has the authority to dissolve the assembly and suspend the parliament and prime minister.

"Musharraf wants to firm up his grip over the ruling party by appointing its head as interim prime minister and a liberal and progressive Shaukat Aziz who will be totally dependent on him, to fulfill his domestic and international agenda," says Najam Sethi, editor of The Daily Times.

"Musharraf always wanted to have a technocrat rather than a politician whom he can fully trust, and Shaukat Aziz is the ideal choice," he says.

Mr. Aziz has been a close confidant of Musharraf since the general assumed power. He has won credit for stabilizing the country's economy. His economic reforms were also helped by debt forgiveness from the West in return for Islamabad's support for the war on terror after Sept. 11.

"He is already credited for helping boost country's fragile economy. For Musharraf, he can play an important role. Musharraf will have Shaukat Aziz's face if he needs to make concessions to improve Pakistan India ties and can be saved from embarrassment before his own constituency of military," says Mr. Sethi.

But many analysts believe that recent shake-up might isolate Musharraf from the civilian population. "Shaukat Aziz is not a political entity. He might be the likeable guy in the West but he has no roots in the masses, so there will be no bridge between the people and Musharraf," says the former chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Afrasiyab Khattak.

"Musharraf is in strong position. But the extremists will ignite the prevailing anti-US sentiments among people that Shaukat Aziz is a gift of the West to Pakistan, and exploit the situation."

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