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Pakistan's future in the balance

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Pakistan

Pakistan's new civilian government has been struggling to end a conflict with militant forces along its border with Afghanistan. But the failure to bring a quick peace has led to some public disillusionment with the new coalition government.

President Pervez Musharraf
Pervez Musharraf's election defeat brought hope for democracy

After a year of turmoil in Pakistan, I was prepared for almost anything in February's general elections: rigging, apathy, street protests, violence. So I was taken aback by the actual result: hope.

The vote was relatively free, it went clearly against President Pervez Musharraf, who had governed as a military leader for eight years.

It brought two historic rivals together in a civilian coalition: the Pakistan Peoples' Party of the late Benazir Bhutto and the Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif.

More than that, the two founded their alliance on commitment to the rule of law, promising to reinstate judges sacked by the president to prevent challenges to his rule.

New dawn

In a country where politics is a byword for power over principle, it seemed like a new dawn.

That at least, was the mood as we ran up the hill to the home of the deposed chief justice.

The new prime minister had just announced his release from house arrest, and throngs of his excited supporters pulled away the barriers.

They were surreptitiously aided by some of the policemen who were apparently pleased that their stint as jailers to the country's top judge was coming to an end.

"It was a lousy deployment," said one.

To top it all off, Pakistan's army - known for coups rather than constitutionalism - announced that it was disengaging itself from politics.

Disillusionment

But four and a half months on, the hope has gone.

Pakistan is faced with a government that appears adrift, reinforcing peoples' worst prejudices about civilian politicians.

Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League-N (L) and Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People's Party (R)
Pakistan's civilian coalition leaders disagree over reinstating judges

Take Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto and now co-chairman of her party.

The view here is that he rode to power on the back of his wife's murder, and that he's now filling key positions with his cronies.

He has also reneged on his pledge to restore the deposed judges.

Mr Zardari says reinstatement involves complex legal questions and cannot be rushed.

Critics say he's worried the restored judges would annul an amnesty on corruption charges his wife negotiated with President Musharraf last year.

Whatever the reason, something that seemed simple - reversing an illegal act - has become mired in constitutional wrangling, and brought the coalition to the verge of collapse.

Cracks in the coalition

Nawaz Sharif has pulled his ministers out of the cabinet.

He continues to support the coalition in parliament, but he also recently headed a massive street protest against the government's policy on the judges.

Confused? So is everyone else in Pakistan. Confusion seems to be the only consistent feature of this government's policies.

The perceived lack of leadership is stoking fears that the Taleban are gaining space to regroup and expand their influence

A few weeks ago, I was preparing a story about a peace deal between local Taleban militants and the provincial government in the northwest Swat Valley.

Then I saw that newspaper headlines were screaming "Swat Peace Deal Scrapped!" They were quoting a senior adviser to the prime minister.

Crestfallen, I asked the chief negotiator, who is a coalition member, whether this was true.

"Nonsense," he said. "The deal still stands." The Taleban also rubbished the report.

Even something seemingly straightforward - investigating the assassination of Benazir Bhutto - has become confused.

Contradictory policies

At a raucous press conference, government ministers announced they would request a UN commission.

Benazir Bhutto
There is international pressure to investigate Benazir Bhutto's death

One journalist asked: "Why does Pakistan need outside investigators, if Ms Bhutto's party is now in government?"

"There is an international element to this heinous crime that local investigators can't handle," explained the law minister. "The prime suspect, Pakistani Taleban commander Baitullah Mehsud, has alleged links to al-Qaeda."

"Then why are you negotiating a peace deal with him?" asked another reporter.

"Well," said the law minister, "he's only one of the suspects, a person is innocent until proven guilty."

"Yes," chimed in the foreign minister, "Baitullah Mehsud has categorically denied involvement, let's keep both sides in view."

Opportunity for the Taleban

The new government's initial policy of negotiating an end to Islamic militancy has been broadly supported by Pakistanis.

Baitullah Mehsud's fighters
US wants Pakistan government to act against Pakistani Taleban

But the perceived lack of leadership is stoking fears that the Taleban are gaining space to regroup and expand their influence.

While the coalition squabbles about reinstating judges, the Taleban are setting up ad hoc courts to resolve disputes, in some cases invited to do so by the locals.

Islamic law was the main demand of the Swat Taleban, and one of the main pillars of their peace deal. This appealed to people who see the government system as painfully slow and favouring the powerful.

"If Islamic law is enforced, our cases will be solved in two or three weeks," said one man I met at the district courts. He had been trying to settle a land dispute for two years.

"Plus," he said, "Islamic law will distinguish between the oppressed and the oppressor and give justice. Our courts don't do that."

Very few Pakistanis want the kind of society that the Taleban offer. But they do want governance and justice.

Faced with a leadership that seems unable to deliver either, the Taleban stand as a bleak but increasingly real alternative.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 3rd July, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




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