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Pakistan Caught in Cycle of Political Uncertainty


Pakistan elects a new president on Saturday to replace Pervez Musharraf who resigned the post last month, following intense pressure from his political opponents. Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples' Party, or PPP, is expected to win the vote in the electoral college and solidify his party's hold on power. But as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the election is not expected to resolve lingering questions about that country's governmental and political system.

Since its foundation in 1947 as a parliamentary state, Pakistan has vacillated between military and civilian rule, with additional power shifts between the president and the prime minister. Analysts say Saturday's election is not likely to fundamentally change things, and more political gridlock is probable.

U.S. Army War College professor Larry Goodson likens Pakistan's political situation to the film "Groundhog Day," where the protagonist keeps repeating the same events over and over. Goodson says the dizzying pendulum swings have put Pakistan on the path to what he calls a "political nervous breakdown."

"There is this schizophrenia between the military and the civilian leadership of the government. There is this schizophrenia between the major political forces. And then there is this historical schizophrenia over what the country is actually supposed to be in terms of its ethnic or religious or linguistic construction," he said.

Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst with the RAND Corporation, says the presidential election and related developments underscore the unresolved debate over Pakistan's political character. "The Pakistani political system has not yet decided amongst itself what kind of state it wants to be, what kind of constitution it should have and what should be the elemental structures of governance. And in many senses, I think a lot of the political chicanery and convulsions that we've witnessed really derive from the fact that the state has not resolved something as elemental as what kind of government we should have," she said.

Pakistan has had five constitutions since its inception, with two additional major revisions. General Pervez Musharraf's 1999 coup that ousted then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif marked the fourth time the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its existence, seized power. And according to Christine Fair, the parliament is dysfunctional. "The Pakistan legislature is notorious for not legislating. In fact, one of my favorite quotes from a provincial legislator I met in April was, 'I have absolutely no interest in legislating.' To which my response was, 'Don't you need a new job?,'" she said.

As a result, analysts say, Pakistan's political maturity has been stunted, with no real opportunity for true development of democratic institutions.

Further contributing to the political instability, analysts say, is the president's power to dissolve the National Assembly and fire the government, which undercuts the prime minister's power. During the 1990s, both the PPP, led by Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif at one time or another worked behind the scenes to have the president dismiss the sitting government. That power was rescinded in 1997, but General Musharraf reasserted it after his 1999 coup.

Writing in Thursday's Washington Post newspaper, Asif Ali Zardari pledged to, as he put it, "support efforts to bring back into balance the powers of the presidency" and thereby reduce its ability to bring down democratic governance. But most analysts remain skeptical that Zardari will voluntarily give up the president's most significant power once he gets the job.

As for the military, the Army Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, has said the military will no longer play a political role. But analysts say that if the partisan gridlock that paralyzed Pakistani politics in the 1990s reemerges, that could push the military back into the arena, but perhaps more behind the scenes than on center stage.

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