Pakistan's new leaders face tough issues

Will parliament oust President Musharraf and negotiate with the Taliban? Legislators convened Monday for the first time.

Zulfiqar Balti/Pakistan Muslim League-N party/AP
Asif Ali Zardari (r.), widower of former opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, chatted with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif (l.), during a meeting at the Parliament House before the National Assembly's first session since national elections. Pakistan inaugurated a new parliament on Monday, dominated by opponents of President Pervez Musharraf.
Emilio Morenatti/AP
A Pakistani police officer stands guard next to a billboard with the portrait of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto outside the Parliament House in Islamabad, Pakistan. One month after a landmark election changed the course of Pakistani politics, the new parliament convened at last on Monday.

One month after a landmark election changed the course of Pakistani politics, the new parliament convened at last on Monday.

Before it lie questions of enormous importance to Pakistan and to the world – most particularly, how it will rein in terrorists entrenched in the remote tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Its attitude toward President Pervez Musharraf could also determine whether Pakistan finds stability or again deteriorates into political crisis.

And, not least, there remains the matter of choosing a prime minister.

Yet for the people of Pakistan, today represents an important moment in the process of replacing nine years of military rule with a functioning democracy.

"[It] is the victory of the public because it is the session of our representatives," says Muhammad Fahim, a young technology professional from Lahore. "We consider it a first step toward the materialization of our dreams."

At Monday's session, members of parliament took their oath of office. The parliament will not begin work in earnest until a candidate for prime minister is announced, which is expected later this week.

The delay is due to indecision in the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which will lead a coalition government aligned against Mr. Musharraf. Recent reports have suggested that PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari, widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is weighing whether he should take the job.

That would require him to be elected to parliament in special elections to be held next month that will fill a number of vacant seats in the assembly. The prime minister announced this week, then, would act only as a caretaker until Mr. Zardari arrived.

"It is purely Zardari's decision," says Najam Sethi, an editor for the Daily Times, a national newspaper based in Lahore.

It is one of the flash points that could derail the parliament, since some members of the PPP favor longtime party president Mukhdoom Amin Fahim.

Indeed, the new session of parliament is fraught with delicate choices. In its war on terror, it must balance the desires of its people, who want negotiation with Taliban fighters, against the pressures of the United States, which wants greater military action.

Moreover, it must decide how to handle Musharraf. Recent statements suggest he won't be bowing out, though his allies were comprehensively defeated Feb. 18.

Yet if members of the coalition try to sideline Musharraf by attempting to restore the judges he sacked – something the two leading parties, the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, have vowed to move on within 30 days of taking office – he could still cause trouble. His presidential powers give him the right to dissolve parliament.

Says Mr. Sethi: "They will have to cross that bridge without getting into a confrontation."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.