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Pakistan Opposition Skeptical About Musharraf Government - 2003-11-13

Pakistan's pro-military government has just finished its first year in office, but critics are skeptical about whether a transfer of power to the elected government has really taken place.

Under international pressure, President General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999, held elections late last year.

But he did so only after amending the constitution to extend his term as president for five more years, without giving up his job as the army chief. The changes also gave him the power to dismiss the elected government and dissolve Parliament.

In what some international observers described as "flawed elections" held under the new laws, Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali's pro-Musharraf party won a thin majority in the Pakistan Parliament.

Major opposition groups in the Parliament refuse to accept Mr. Musharraf's constitutional changes, known as the Legal Framework Order, or LFO.

The chief opposition groups are the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy, which is made up of liberal politicians, and the Islamic Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. Their protests against the military's dominance of national politics has paralyzed the Parliament, with almost no legislative business being carried out.

For most of the year, parliamentary proceedings were marked by violent and noisy protests, with opposition members thumping the desks and chanting anti-Musharraf slogans before walking out of the sessions.

Raza Rabbani, an opposition lawmaker, says President Musharraf installed the elected government, but did not give it power to make policies.

"What we have today is a facade of democracy," he said. "We have a facade of Parliament and an elected government. All major decisions through out the year have been taken outside Parliament."

Ruling party lawmakers such as Mushahid Hussain say both the government and the opposition are responsible for the small amount of parliamentary business completed during the past year. He says the two sides must resolve their differences, but he rejects the opposition's criticism of the constitutional amendments the president introduced.

"They themselves are the beneficiaries of LFO, with the increase in number of seats in which they have also taken their share," said Mushahid Hussain. "And then they have been given development funds under the same system which they attack. Then they have been part of delegations sent by the government overseas while they attack government policies on other areas. So I think that the opposition should also not try to have the cake and eat it too."

Mr. Hussain also rejects domestic and international criticism that Mr. Musharraf has not yet really transferred power to the elected government.

"We have taken steps to build up a genuine democratic culture," he said. "I think it will take some time, and in that endeavor the opposition and the government should jointly work to make that attainable and for that there has to be accommodation, there has to be compromise, there has to be conciliation."

The political tensions over President Musharraf's constitutional amendments increased near the end of Parliament's session this year, when a leading opposition politician, Javed Hashmi, was arrested for allegedly defaming and trying to incite the army to mutiny.

Mr. Hashmi, who is being detained, was arrested October 29 after publicly reading a letter critical of President Musharraf, particularly of his decision to join the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Mr. Hashmi said some army officers wrote the unsigned letter. The government says Mr. Hashmi forged the letter.

He was arrested while a delegation from the European Parliament was in Pakistan to assess whether democracy had been fully restored. John Cushnahan was part of the delegation.

"Certainly we were concerned if whether or not that arrest was sending a message from the military to members of Parliament that military is not going to tolerate criticism of their rule in the governance of Pakistan," said Mr. Cushnahan. "So I am very worried about the lack of progress [on democracy], I am very concerned about the continued abuse of human rights in the country."

The opposition's Mr. Rabbani says Mr. Hashmi's arrest was meant to discourage the opposition.

"It is an attempt to browbeat the opposition," he said. "This is an attempt to try and show the opposition leaders that if you do not play ball then this is what is going to be meted out to you."

The government also has come under criticism for not improving human rights, which activists such as Asma Jehangir say have deteriorated in the past year.

"People have lost faith in the system of justice, people have lost faith in any other institution where people feel that their grievances can be heard," said Asma Jehangir. "The reason that they give us is that the tentacles of the military have gone too deep and I believe that probably is correct."

Pakistan's powerful military has ruled the country for more than half of its 55-year existence, and past attempts by elected governments to reduce the army's influence over the political process have borne little fruit.