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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 15:39 GMT
Pakistan's political vacuum
Activists clear out office of Sunni group Sipah-e-Sahaba in Peshawar
Radical sectarian groups have been targeted by the president
By Tufail Ahmad of the BBC Urdu Service

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Islamabad came at a time when Pakistan is passing through a political vacumm.

Virtually all politicians of consequence have been banished from the country.

The entire internal opposition to General Pervez Musharraf's military administration is in disarray.


It remains to be seen if General Musharraf will be able to manipulate the political process as well as General Zia did

But the West is focusing more on General Musharraf's campaign against extremist elements in the country.

However, political analysts say his crackdown on militant and sectarian groups is inspired as much by international pressure as it is by his disdain for religious extremism.

He has made it known that he would continue to be the president even after elections were held.

Consolidating power

Last weekend, when General Musharraf addressed the nation, he gave no clear indication of an incoming democratic transition in Pakistan.

As he consolidates control on power, questions are being raised if the elections which he pledged before 11 September to hold this October will be impartial and whether prominent politicians will be allowed to participate.

Earlier this week President Musharraf went ahead with the appointment of former Chief Justice Irshad Ahmed Khan to the post of Chief Election Commissioner.

President Musharraf making keynote address
Musharraf is 'cleansing the body politic'

It was seen as controversial.

Political parties have pointed out that Justice Khan is the man who headed the Supreme Court bench that gave legal validity to the military's 1999 takeover of power.

General Musharraf's promise to hold elections is not being questioned.

But the press in Pakistan has been speculating as to how fair such elections under the supervision of a military regime will be.

Pakistani newspapers have also recently commented on a possible constitutional amendment to help the president retain power and to prevent former prime ministers from coming to power for a third time.

Pakistan's two previous prime ministers are banished from the country.

Hopes for the revival of a democratic opposition surfaced last month when sources from former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party said she had been contacted by the military in Dubai, where she is now living.

But nothing came of the reports.

Earlier this month, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan resigned as the leader of the the 14-party Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD).

Exile

Although his resignation has not been linked to any reasons associated with the military government, discord in the ARD ranks means there is no effective opposition in the country.

Another former Premier Nawaz Sharif and his brother and Punjab's ex-Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif are in political exile in Saudi Arabia. And the leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement, Altaf Hussain, is living in the UK capital, London.

One Pakistani journalist noted this week that General Musharraf was bent on staying in the driving seat.

The return last week of Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherapo, the former leader of Pakistan People's Party and ex-Chief Minister of the North West Frontier province, to Pakistan in the face of arrest warrants is seen as a back-channel deal by the military regime.

Mr Sherpao is a former soldier. Political circles are abuzz with rumours that the military regime is working on evolving multiple alliances to prevent any one party from securing a majority when elections are held.

There is only one consensus today in Pakistan: The military ruler is cleansing Pakistan's body politic and reversing the culture of religious extremism created by another military man - General Ziaul Haq.

It remains to be seen if he will be able to manipulate the political process as well as General Zia did.

See also:

07 Jan 02 | South Asia
Analysis: Musharraf on a tightrope
04 Jan 02 | South Asia
Pakistan rounds up militants
21 Dec 01 | Americas
More groups join US terror blacklist
20 Dec 01 | South Asia
India rebuffs evidence request
13 Dec 01 | South Asia
India attack prompts crackdown
14 Dec 01 | South Asia
Violent 'army of the pure'
12 Jan 02 | South Asia
Musharraf speech highlights
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