'Dictatorship' warning on eve of Zardari's inauguration

Posted in Pakistan | 08-Sep-08 | Author: Saeed Shah| Source: The Guardian (UK)

Asif Ali Zardari, head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party.

Asif Ali Zardari will be sworn in tomorrow as Pakistan's president, following his election victory at the weekend, amid warnings from opposition voices that the country is in danger of a "civilian dictatorship" after the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari inherits a country facing a deep economic and security crisis, where the hold of democracy is still fragile. The widower of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto will have to reconcile the domestic unpopularity of the country's alliance with the west in the "war against terror" with international demands that Islamabad must do more to rein in extremists based in Pakistan's tribal territory, who threaten Nato's mission in Afghanistan.

US attacks in the tribal area, especially an unprecedented ground assault last week, have raised angry demands that the country abandon "America's war".

Few question the right of Zardari, 53, to be president, following his overwhelming election by an electoral college consisting of the parliament and regional assemblies, unlike Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. But Zardari's ruthless reputation and the concentration of power in his hands have raised concern. As president and leader of the ruling Pakistan People's party, he will control government and parliament. As party boss, he chose the prime minister and can similarly dismiss him. The PPP controls three of the four provincial governments.

Although Pakisan is supposed to have a parliamentary system, where the prime minister is chief executive, Musharraf ran the country under powers that Zardari will inherit. He also inherits a judiciary tamed by Musharraf. As president, Zardari will be immune from criminal charges.

"This is the real test," said Ahsan Iqbal, a leading member of Nawaz Sharif's party, which recently left the ruling coalition to become the biggest opposition group. "The parliamentary system assumes the prime minister is the chief executive. But if the president is the fountainhead of power, that creates a logjam."

After his election on Saturday, Zardari vowed to "correct the imbalance" between the presidency and the parliament, but did not say whether he would give up the leadership of the PPP. The president is by convention a non-party figure. "Democracy talks, and everyone hears," Zardari said in a speech. "To those who would say the PPP, or the presidency, would be controversial under our guardianship, I say, listen to democracy. Ninety-nine per cent of the people have spoken."

Nisar Memon, a senator from the pro-Musharraf opposition party, said: "They [the government] have been consolidating power, not addressing the real issues of the people. My fear is we are moving from military rule to a civilian dictatorship." The accusation Zardari seeks unchecked power is fuelled by his continued refusal to reinstate the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, removed by Musharraf.