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OCTOBER 18, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 15

A Strongman Shaken
Nawaz Sharif's position as Pakistan's boss would be unassailable--if he weren't so adept at assailing it

The Darul Khair, or House of Peace, is a religious school for Sunni Muslims in Karachi. But the school was far from tranquil one evening early this month. As a group of students played cricket outside, armed men pulled up in two cars and sprayed the youngsters with gunfire, killing four and injuring nine. The assault was apparently in retaliation for a Sunni attack on a Shi'a mosque the day before in which nine worshippers died.

India-Pakistan: Tit for Tat
Tensions rise anew with the shooting down of a Pakistani military plane and a reported retaliatory missile firing (8/23/99)

"We're not to blame"
Nawaz Sharif Q&A on Pakistan and India (11/30/98)

Breaking news from South Asia

Pakistan's loss of face as a result of the fighting with India in the disputed region of Kashmir has united the opposition against the PM (10/8/99)

After a six-month lull, sectarian violence between Pakistan's Sunni and minority Shi'a Muslims is back with a vengeance. In the past two weeks, at least 40 people have been murdered, most of them Shi'a. The government was quick to place blame not on militants in the country, but on neighboring Afghanistan for allegedly training them.

The upturn in fighting is only the latest sign that Prime Minister Muhammed Nawaz Sharif, halfway into his five-year term, is having trouble governing his fractious country. The economy is in a free fall, made worse by Sharif's penchant for expensive public-works projects. The International Monetary Fund is withholding financial help because of a dispute over power prices. The Pakistan-backed infiltration of Kashmir's Kargil heights last summer brought the country a humiliating defeat by India, its hated enemy, and a rap on the knuckles from the United States, a longtime ally. Sharif's relations with Pakistan's powerful military establishment are so strained that rumors of an impending coup are touched off at the slightest provocation. Says a Western observer: "Pakistan now is like a fragile glass sculpture, minus a hammer."

Sharif's own position, too, seems oddly fragile, given that he is Pakistan's most powerful elected leader since martial law ended in 1985. After winning the 1997 general election by a landslide, he took away the president's power to dismiss governments and then forced the ouster of the president, the chief justice and the army chief, replacing them with his own men. His main political rival, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was convicted of corruption and now lives in exile.

But no prime minister since 1985 has completed a full term, and although he denies opposition charges of misrule and vows to complete his term, Sharif is clearly feeling insecure. He has become increasingly reliant on a handful of trusted advisers. He is intolerant of dissent within his own party and has cracked down on the press, as well as on Pakistan's large but ineffectual political opposition. A 19-party "Grand Democratic Alliance" was formed for the sole purpose of ousting him, but the coalition has yet to present a credible alternative.

A more potent threat to Sharif's position may come from the army, which has ruled the country for 25 of its 52 years. Still smarting over Pakistan's retreat from the Kargil confrontation, the brass is also reportedly displeased with the Prime Minister's pledge to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would constrain the nuclear weapons program. Since Pakistan ended the Kargil crisis under U.S. pressure, relations are said to have soured between Sharif and his army chief, General Pervez Musharraf. An unusual U.S. warning last month against attempts to "change the government through extraconstitutional means" served only to exacerbate the government-army tensions.

The Prime Minister's management of the economy has not inspired confidence either. Despite Pakistan's foreign debt of $32 billion, Sharif is pushing a billion-dollar project to provide 500,000 new homes for the poor. The IMF last month decided to withhold, for now at least, a $280 million installment of its $1.56 billion loan to Pakistan. Electricity to the Finance Ministry headquarters in Islamabad was temporarily cut off in late September for nonpayment of bills. A report last month by the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Center in Islamabad links a tripling in the suicide rate since 1997, notably among jobless fathers, to the fiscal gloom. "Economic deprivation is increasingly pushing individuals to take the final plunge," the center concluded.

Some Pakistanis are worried about what might happen after Senate elections set for next March. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League is widely expected to win big, giving the Prime Minister the power to enact whatever legislation he likes. One particularly explosive bill to be taken up by the Senate would amend the constitution to make Muslim Shariah the law of the land, which opponents fear could be used as a tool of repression and a way for Sharif to amass even more power.

If Sharif is unnerved by the chaos and consternation around him, he is trying hard not to show it. He still plays cricket most Saturdays at the Lahore Gymkhana club. "The opposition will continue holding rallies and demonstrations," he told reporters last month, "and we will continue working and playing cricket." As a group of schoolboys found last month, however, cricket can be a deadly game in a Pakistan where governance is failing and sectarian passions are rising.

With reporting by Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi

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