Caution Over a Defining Cause in Pakistan

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 21, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 20 -- The head of Pakistan's new leading party said Wednesday that it is the job of the newly elected Parliament to decide whether to reinstate the country's embattled judiciary.

Asif Ali Zardari, co-chair of the Pakistan People's Party and widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said at a news conference that his party wants "the judiciary to be an independent institution in the country." But he offered no specific call for the immediate reinstatement of the chief justice.

Restoration of the judiciary has been a flash-point issue for politicians here since last year, when President Pervez Musharraf fired Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and detained several lawyers, including the president of the Supreme Court bar association, Aitzaz Ahsan. Both Chaudhry and Ahsan are critics of the president. Several parties have pushed for the reinstatement of the judiciary, but none more stridently than the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Zardari, whose party captured more votes than any other in Monday's parliamentary elections, plans to meet with Sharif on Thursday to discuss the possible formation of a coalition. While Sharif was not a candidate for office, his Pakistan Muslim League-N took second place in the elections. Zardari said he had all but ruled out working with Musharraf's party.

Musharraf, in an interview Tuesday with the Wall Street Journal, vowed to stay in office despite his growing unpopularity and the poor electoral performance of his Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

The scramble to build alliances in Parliament began in earnest late Monday when it became clear that voters had handed a victory to the two leading opposition parties. Zardari appeared to be working vigorously Wednesday to consolidate his party's power, holding meetings with leaders of several smaller opposition parties, including the secular Awami National Party.

The outcome of the political horse-trading will not only determine Parliament's next choice for prime minister but also have significant ramifications for the U.S.-backed counterterrorism efforts here.

The United States has spent billions in aid to Pakistan to bolster the fight against militants in the country's restive tribal areas and northwest frontier. Much of that was in the form of reimbursements for about 91 Pakistani military operations against militants.

But newly empowered parties in Parliament could diverge from Musharraf's strategy. Zardari said Wednesday that his party wants to redefine Pakistan's struggle with Muslim extremists and smooth the way toward greater political inclusion for the millions of people living in Pakistan's restive tribal regions.

"If we want to resolve the issue of extremism in Pakistan, then we have to address the causes of extremism in the country," he said.

President Bush, traveling in Ghana, called the elections in Pakistan a "victory" in the fight against terrorism.

"It's now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government," Bush said. "The question then is, will they be friends of the United States? I certainly hope so."

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