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Fix' backfires as army halts Pakistan assembly

Fix' backfires as army halts Pakistan assembly

Author: Ahmed Rashid
Publication: The Daily Telegraph, UK
Date: November 7, 2002

Pakistan's military regime last night abruptly postponed the inaugural meeting of the first parliament since the 1999 coup as an anti-army coalition of parties looked like forming a government.

"The government is considering the proposal of some political parties to postpone the national assembly's inaugural session," Gen Pervaiz Musharraf was quoted on state-run television as telling a cabinet meeting yesterday.

"A decision in this regard will be taken in the best interests of democracy."

Three years after the military seized power, the country was expected to return to a semblance of democracy tomorrow when the 342-seat National Assembly was scheduled to meet and choose a new prime minister. The military has set no new date for the assembly to meet.

On Tuesday night, after Gen Musharraf had conferred with his generals, several leading politicians close to the army began to call for a postponement of the assembly. It is believed that the army had asked the politicians to do so in order to avoid a debacle.

The Oct 11 elections, which most international observers say were rigged by the military regime, produced a hung parliament.

The army had attempted to create a parliament that was unable to question its domination of the political scene. But the scheme backfired.

The assembly broadly divides into the pro-army Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) or PML-Q and its allies and an anti-army coalition of political parties.

This coalition includes an alliance of six Islamic parties and the secular Pakistan Peoples Party and another faction of the Pakistan Muslim League led by two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who are both in exile.

The coalitions are running neck and neck, with neither being able to muster a majority.

The army's Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) has been trying to give the PML-Q and its candidate for prime minister - the Baloch politician Zafrullah Khan Jamali - a workable majority before the assembly is summoned. The postponement is a result of the ISI's failure to secure Jamali a majority.

Over the past few days there have been conflicting claims. On Monday, the PML-Q said it had a majority but the next day the opposition coalition made the same claim.

Politicians are having endless meetings in Islamabad hotels and homes as ISI officers in civilian clothes linger in the lobby or the street watching who meets whom. Other parties are having to communicate with their leaders by telephone because they are in exile abroad.

Gen Musharraf is also in favour of a postponement because opposition parties refuse to accept amendments to the constitution that would give the army a permanent and powerful role in running the country.

Gen Musharraf is also under pressure from Washington, which is concerned I the opposition coalitions candidate for prime minister. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, an Islamic fundamentalist.

Mr Rehman is a leader of the Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) or six-party Islamic alliance, which won an unprecedented 59 assembly seats. He is anti-American, has been an ally of the Taliban and was once sympathetic to al-Qa'eda.

The MMA is almost certain to form governments in the North West Frontier and Balochistan provinces bordering Afghanistan, arousing fears they will provide a safe haven for Taliban supporters.

Whoever does become prime minister, political instability is almost certain to follow because the new government will not have a workable majority, and the army is determined to keep real power for itself.

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