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Pakistan's New Prime Minister Faces Many Challenges - 2002-11-27

Pakistan's return to democracy last week climaxed with Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali becoming the country's 16th elected prime minister. But Mr. Jamali will be walking a tightrope. He has a very thin majority and faces strong opposition in the parliament on the one hand and a strong president on the other.

Prime Minister Jamali formed the government with the help of smaller parties and the defection of 10 members of the main opposition party. He won the minimum necessary 172 votes in the 342-member lower house of parliament, but there was a price to pay. Three of the "turncoats" from former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's party were given key ministries in the new cabinet: defense, interior and petroleum.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a member of the National Assembly who belongs to Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's party, predicts that Mr. Jamali's administration will not last its full five-year term because of its slim majority in the parliament.

"It's a very fragile government," he said. "It's a government that has been cobbled together. There are about nine or 10 parties that have joined hands to get the requisite number. They do not have any ideological or political cohesion. So there are chances that this fragile government, when the political pressure, comes might fall apart."

President Pervez Musharraf, the army general who took power in a military coup in 1999, has returned Pakistan to democratic rule, but many observers say he will continue to dominate Pakistani politics.

The military leader has extended his rule by five years in a controversial referendum and amended the constitution to give himself powers to dismiss parliament. The president has also institutionalized the military's role in politics.

Prime Minister Jamali's Pakistan Muslim League (Q) party supports the constitution changes. But opposition parties in the National Assembly do not.

The three sessions of the newly elected National Assembly have provided a taste of tough debate on the amendments, known as the Legal Framework Order, or LFO. Opposition members such as Javed Hashmi have interrupted each session to demand that President Musharraf place the amendments before the parliament for approval.

"This issue is very sensitive issue. None of us will accept the LFO as a part of the constitution," said Mr. Hashmi. "We will not accept it. We will throw it away. If that will become part of the constitution we will throw away that constitution out of this house."

Tehmina Daultana is another opposition politician in the National Assembly. "We feel whatever law has to be made should be brought in the assembly and any constitutional amendment that has to be made, it has to be made by two-thirds members of the assembly. And for that it is important that the power should lie with the elected people of Pakistan," she said.

In a speech after his election, Prime Minister Jamali said that his government will consult the opposition on all major issues. He pledged to protect democracy. "Let's not be in a hurry, let's not be impatient and let's not be selfish. … It's a golden chance we have got. It's a right of the people and I think every citizen is looking toward us," he said.

But many observers think Mr. Jamali is unlikely to challenge President Musharraf because his party strongly supports the political, economic and foreign policies the president has introduced.

Najam Sethi is the editor of the Daily Times and the prestigious weekly The Friday Times. He says President Musharraf's constitutional amendments will remain a bone of contention in the new parliament. Mr. Sethi said unless President Musharraf backs down and submits the amendments to debate, the parliament will be deadlocked and highly unstable.

"It's going to be a long haul, but slowly, inch-by-inch, the civilians will have to take back the ground that they've lost to the military. But I have a feeling that both the people who are in parliament and the military, I think they would like to see a compromise," said Mr. Sethi. "Parliament because it doesn't want to be sacked again, Musharraf because he doesn't want to be responsible for sacking parliament because that would mean that everything that he has done has really amounted to naught. And it would be an admission of failure."

The military has ruled Pakistan for half of its existence. The last military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, remained in power for more than 11 years, until he died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988.