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Pakistan Leaders May Foster Regional Peace

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has announced that the new parliament will convene on March 17 -- nearly a month after opposition parties won the majority of seats in parliamentary elections. The opening session comes as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain leader Benazir Bhutto's, agreed to form a coalition to run the country. How will the country’s new political landscape affect Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan?

The new government in Islamabad is the first civilian government in more than eight years. And some political observers say Pakistan's relations with neighboring Afghanistan could improve as a result -- especially now that the Awami National Party, or ANP, is in power in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

Analyst Farhana Ali at the RAND Corporation here in Washington says the ANP is a secular party that opposes Taliban militants. "I think they [i.e., the ANP-led regional government] will have a greater control over the Pashtun belt. At least that was the optimism that was expressed by ANP members and sympathizers that I met with in Peshawar," says Ali. "So I think there is hope for better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Cross-Border Problems

But at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Frederic Grare says he expects little difference because the cross-border infiltration of militants will remain a problem. But if Pakistan can begin negotiations with Afghanistan, similar to the process it has with India, he says there can be progress.

"Pakistan's policy in Afghanistan is essentially a continuation of its policies with India. So should there is a peace process, can we expect also some benefits on the Afghan side? Well, the logic would say, 'Yes'," says Grare.

Grare says he is optimistic that the new civilian government in Islamabad will continue the peace process with India that was pursued by Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf.

Terrorism expert Farhana Ali adds that the process likely will continue because the dispute over control of Kashmir remains unresolved. The problem, she says, is that there are many different groups fighting over the region's future. "Because there is not a local indigenous Kashmiri movement and you have many different political forces and many different groups, it becomes very difficult, I think, for both Pakistan and India to agree to who represents the Kashmir people," says Ali.

Among the leaders who cobbled together the political coalition in Islamabad after last month's parliamentary elections is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He was among the politicians who originally made the peace overture to India in 1999. Another is Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who said she was committed to continuing the talks.

Continuing Peace Process

William Milam, who served as U.S Ambassador to Pakistan during the Clinton administration and is now an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says he expects that the coalition leadership will continue the peace process. "So you have at least two leaders who, I think, have intellectual and emotional commitment to it. I can't see how it is not going to continue, although the pace at which it continues is unpredictable right now," says Milam.

Milam adds that there is cause for hope in Islamabad, but that political parties must seize the opportunity. Instead of fighting each other, he says they must work together as a coalition to avoid plunging the country into further turmoil.

Ambassador Milam also says a civilian government in Islamabad will make it easier for Washington because it can work with the Pakistani Army in fighting terrorism without being seen as interfering in the country's politics. "I can tell you from my own personal experience that when the military is in charge or takes charge of a government, it complicates the relationship with the United States," says Milam. "When I was there in 1999, the relationship was already complicated enough. But it got very much more complicated when October 12 came along and the Army took charge [by ousting then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif]."

Analysts point out that the new parliament could remove President Musharraf from office by impeaching him or by restoring the judiciary which, in turn, could nullify his re-election. But Milam argues that Mr. Musharraf has a mixed record while in office.

"President Musharraf deserves credit for some of the things he did in Pakistan during his almost nine years in power," says Milam. "He also obviously has made some serious mistakes, particularly in the last year, which I think have made all of us wonder whether he is still a useful political instrument [in Pakistan]."

The Musharraf Factor

RAND Corporation analyst Farhana Ali says she does not see a scenario in which President Musharraf would be removed from office. She says it would be very difficult for the two coalition leaders -- former Prime Minister Sharif and Pakistan Peoples Party leader Zardari -- to push for Mr. Musharraf's ouster. Ali adds that Zardari may need Mr. Musharraf to remain in office to keep Sharif from becoming a formidable opponent in a bid for the presidency.

"Nawaz Sharif won most of the seats in the Punjab [Province], so he would be the most popularly elected president. Now you see the two individuals working together," says Ali. "They both are seizing opportunities. But it is unclear if Zardari would be able to work with Nawaz Sharif as president."

Farhana Ali also says that because General Ashfaq Kiyani was hand picked by President Musharraf to be Army chief, he may intervene if the civilian government tries to remove Mr. Musharraf from office. "I think that it would be very difficult at this point for Musharraf to stand by and let that happen," says Ali. "He has made it very clear that he is the President, he is there for the next five years, he is there to stay and he is the partner of the United States [in the war on terror]."

Ali says she is confident that considering the will of the people as expressed in last month's elections and despite the hurdles posed by its history, Pakistan is inching toward democracy.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.