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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Nawaz and Leghari have a stark choice -- tussle for power or team up to fix the nation's flagging economy

By Susan Berfield
and Assif Shameen / Islamabad

PAKISTAN'S PRESIDENTS HAVE NOT recently played an overt role in everyday politics, but they wield substantial power nonetheless. Since 1988, they have high-handedly laid low elected prime ministers they didn't care for and dissolved parliaments. Now the president has more power than ever before -- and this has radically altered Pakistan's political landscape. That is thanks largely to the incumbent, Farooq Leghari, who in a matter of months has moved from the sidelines to the prime minister's side. He will likely have a say in everything from economic policy to political appointments.

Nawaz Sharif, whose Muslim League party decisively won the Feb. 3 elections, is not comfortable with the new seating arrangement. "The parliament is a supreme body," he says. "All the personalities and institutions have to work in the given constitutional framework." Nawaz may have the clout to squeeze out the president. But Leghari has the backing of the military. For now, Nawaz is unlikely to kick over the table in protest.

Pakistani prime ministers have always been wary of their presidents. With good reason: in the past two decades no civilian premier, including the 48-year-old Nawaz, has served a full five-year term. Benazir Bhutto was fired twice, most recently by Leghari in November. As a result, Pakistanis have gone to the polls four times in the past eight years; they are tired of revolving-door politics and hope for stability. Leghari's supporters say that will come with a more activist president -- and they may be right.

The 56-year-old Leghari, whose own five-year term ends in two, certainly has been active in the past few months. First he removed Bhutto, once a close party colleague, from power. He arrested her husband, who had served as investment minister, on corruption charges. He appointed a complacent prime minister, filled the cabinet with cronies and promised to root out corrupt politicians. In January, he announced the formation of a national security council that would "advise" the prime minister on matters ranging from defense to the economy. Leghari heads the 10-member group, which includes the four top military leaders, senior cabinet officials and, oh yes, the prime minister. Soon after, the Supreme Court upheld the president's constitutional power to fire the prime minister. Leghari was vindicated.

The president's authority has been defined. Nawaz, say Leghari's supporters, would be well-advised to work with his new partner. "The dynamics of the political system have changed," says Shahid Hamid, the outgoing defense minister and a longtime Leghari confidante. "The president has a lot of power and the prime minister has to take that into account."

Pakistan's top court affirmed the president's authority. The military quietly supports Leghari. Why? It was not because everyone trusts the president. In short, the judiciary wanted to teach Bhutto a lesson. She antagonized the Supreme Court judges throughout her tenure; her worse offense, though, was to condone the tapping of their phones by the Intelligence Bureau.

For their part, Pakistan's generals are worried about the country: the economy is faltering, national unity is fraying and corruption is flourishing. The military has ruled the country for nearly half of its life so the generals did not object to a formal role. They knew, however, that anything more would be unreasonable. "The world has changed and Pakistan has changed," says Hamid Gul, a retired general who once headed the intelligence services. "The army as an institution has adjusted to the changed realities."

When Leghari won the military's endorsement for the security council, it was a victory. Now it is a coup. With no power base of his own, Leghari "needs a base to stand on if he is going to assert himself against Nawaz, who comes in with a huge mandate," says political analyst M. Inayatullah. "The security council is Leghari's foundation. It gives him a forum to neutralize Nawaz."

Would he want to? After all, Nawaz and Leghari have no major ideological differences. Both believe in open markets and privatization. Both want to trim spending, improve tax collection and pay back the money Pakistan owes international donors. Their foreign policy aims are the same: to gradually improve relations with nemesis India.

True, they came to power on different paths. Nawaz is a folksy multi-millionaire who likes to champion the cause of urbanites. He is an industrialist tutored in politics by the military dictator Zia ul-Haq. Those who have worked with him say he lacks self-confidence; Nawaz rarely gives impromptu interviews. By contrast, Leghari is a feudal landlord and leader of a conservative Baluch tribe. He was imprisoned for opposing Zia's rule. They are not likely allies. Certainly they will have policy disputes. But what will probably divide Nawaz and Leghari is ambition.

The strength of Nawaz's victory -- the Muslim League will dominate parliament when it opens mid-February -- apparently surprised Leghari. Even Nawaz admitted the results were far better than he had dreamed of. Nawaz has enough votes in the assembly to trim the president's power. He could ask the lawmakers to do away with the constitutional amendment that allows the president to fire the prime minister. The prime minister could also ask them to consider the legality of the security council. Bhutto, whose party won a mere 18 of 217 seats in parliament, has already asked Nawaz to push for "constitutional reforms that would restore the balance of power in favor of the elected parliament." Nawaz has only said that the parliament has the right to do so.

At the same time, Leghari is still promising, some would say threatening, to expose corrupt politicians. Even those just elected. Leghari has intimated that he has evidence of dirty deals by Nawaz and several of his close associates; Nawaz's brother has already been fingered for defaulting on a bank loan. Nawaz, who claims credit for first demanding the investigations, now says that the accountability process has been conducted at the polls. If Nawaz presses parliament to curb the president's powers, Leghari could go public. Things could get messy.

But they probably won't, not for a while anyway. "There is a greater chance of these two working together not because they know how much power the other has," says Shahid Hamid. "But because both believe that another dissolution or constitutional crisis will hurt the country." That is an understatement. Turnout for the elections was the lowest since 1988 with some 35% of 56.5 million registered voters casting ballots. Officials cited Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and cold weather as reasons for the poor showing. More likely it was frustration. Bhutto's erstwhile backers apparently stayed home. Nawaz's supporters still turned out; they knew it was his turn to take power.

Some are calling for a referendum on whether Pakistan should adopt a presidential system. Nawaz aides say that such sweeping reforms are still mostly talk.

The economy is a far more pressing concern. The government is heading for bankruptcy. The budget deficit this year will be more than 5.5% of GDP, though Pakistan promised the IMF to lower it to 4%. Growth is slowing and inflation may be closing on 20% a year. The government collects next to no taxes. About a quarter of the federal budget goes to the military; another one-third is eaten up by debt repayments. Nawaz says he won't cut defense spending or default on loans. Pakistan's foreign reserves are less than $1 billion. Exports are flat. Nawaz vows that privatization will boost the government's coffers. But most industries up for sale are unprofitable, inefficient and overpriced. If Nawaz and Leghari turn on each other, Pakistanis are praying that they will have the decency to fix the economy first.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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Thai party announces first coalition partner


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THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

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COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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