Pakistan: Centre Needs To Avert Clash with MMA

Moeed Yusuf
Moeed Yusuf South Asia Adviser

June 19, 2003

Pakistan’s Tottering Quasi-Democracy is being threatened by the clash between the federal government and the rightwing Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal government in the North West Frontier Province. Notwithstanding reassuring statements from Islamabad, the situation remains precarious. The present deadlock needs to be resolved quickly and peacefully.

Clearly, Islamabad should refrain from a heavy-handed approach and drop any idea of sacking the NWFP government. All ethno-linguistic uprisings since Pakistan’s inception have been triggered by dismissal of provincial governments. In fact, in the only previous occasion that the NWFP had an Islamic government in place, the provincial administration resigned in protest against the premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. Similar attitudes were observed when the Balochistan governments were dismissed in 1973 and 1988. The worst episode in the country’s history is of course West Pakistan’s heavy-handedness against East Pakistani uprising, which led to the 1971 debacle. Lessons must be learnt from history.

Three major issues underpin the current deadlock. Instead of lumping them together, which will only aggravate the situation, the two sides need to deal with them separately.

The most contentious issue, one that lies at the heart of the conflict, is the Legal Framework Order. Within the LFO, General Pervez Musharraf’s uniform is a particularly prickly burr in the opposition’s pants. General Musharraf has acknowledged this much. But while saying that it is not appropriate for him to simultaneously hold both the office of the President and the COAS, he has refused so far to set a timeline on giving up the latter office.

General Musharraf should provide a reasonable timeline without further delay. He need not worry about losing control over the army after doffing his uniform. The army is supportive of his agenda and any new COAS is unlikely to challenge his authority or contemplate a coup of his own.

The next issue deals with the Shariah Bill adopted by the NWFP assembly. While the constitution leaves the “Islamisation” process to interpretation, the passing of Shariah Bill per se does not violate the constitution. A province is entitled to such a move, though in the event of a conflict between the province and the federal government, the interpretation of the federal government has to prevail.

The electorate voted in the MMA government in the NWFP. The Shariah Bill constitutes a key component of MMA’s election mandate. Thus the bill should pose no surprise to the electorate. Electing the MMA means the electorate accepted, de facto, the Alliance’s mandate. If every action by a provincial government that does not sit well with the federal government is going to be nullified by the latter, then it makes little sense to have an elected government in the first place. As long as the Shariah Bill does not move the province towards “Talibanisation” through coercion, and as long as Islamabad can keep a check on its implementation, it should be allowed to function.

Finally, there is the issue of nazims. Twenty-four NWFP nazims tendered their resignations to General Musharraf in protest against the provincial government. Islamabad has accused Peshawar of interfering with matters under the jurisdiction of district governments. Whether that is correct, there is clearly a need for more streamlined rules to avoid such a controversy in the future. The NRB chairman, Danial Aziz, has admitted to the existence of a gap between the Local Government Ordinance (LGO) and the Rules of Business (RoBs) currently in place. The new RoBs that are being formulated should unambiguously demarcate the authority of the provincial and district governments. Meanwhile, rather than rejecting the resignations of the nazims himself, General Musharraf should hand over the matter to the NWFP chief minister, as per the dictates of the LGO. Mr Durrani should then attempt to resolve the dispute with the nazims.

The federal government needs to settle these issues with the MMA without any further delay. Any action to the contrary could cause instability beyond the province. There will most certainly be immediate repercussions in Balochistan where a breaking away of the MMA from the ruling coalition could pose serious difficulties for the PML-Q government. Islamabad should also realise that the MMA’s street power can be channelled to disrupt the normal life of citizens, which would result in further resentment against Islamabad.

Some MMA leaders have already drawn parallels of the current situation with 1971; an implied threat in itself, this explosive situation must be defused.