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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

The President Confronts The Premier

Why Leghari has put Bhutto on notice

By Alison Dakota Gee
and Shahid-ur-Rehman / Islamabad


RIOTS NEAR THE NATIONAL Assembly last week provided a telling backdrop to the current high-level political drama going on in Pakistan's capital. Masked protesters attacked police guarding government buildings amid the smoke of burning tires and exploding tear-gas canisters. The unrest highlighted the fact that Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's three-year-old administration is under siege and the forces arrayed against her are becoming increasingly strident. "We have the support of the masses," said Syed Munawar Husan of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) party, which spearheaded the protests. "They are fed up and ready to rise against the corrupt rulers."

Indeed, the thousands of demonstrators in the capital last week are not the only ones who want Bhutto to step down. The JI has been joined by the rest of the opposition in calling for the prime minister's ouster. Bhutto's support appears to be slipping in the key province of Punjab and in Sind, the traditional base of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The prime minister's prestige took a further blow when her estranged brother Murtaza was gunned down by police in September. Even President Farooq Leghari, a PPP member, is questioning how much longer he will let the political status quo continue.

This has put Pakistan's democratic system on trial once again. Since 1988, previous presidents have dismissed all three elected prime ministers. Under the Constitution's 8th amendment, the president can dissolve the National Assembly if he feels that "a situation has arisen in which the government of federation cannot be carried out in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution." What that willful obfuscation means is that the president basically has the power to dissolve Parliament whenever he sees fit. The clause was established by the late military strongman Zia-ul Haq to cement his powers; he used it for the first time in 1988 to oust prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo.

The amendment's second victim was Bhutto. Citing charges of corruption, inefficiency and nepotism, then-president Ghulam Ishak Khan sacked Bhutto in 1990 less than midway through a five-year term. Her current tenure, though, promised to be different -- or at least more secure. After her reelection in October 1993, Bhutto's PPP consolidated power and Leghari was appointed president. The two were considered close; Benazir often addressed the president as Farooq Bhai (Brother Farooq).

Their intimacy has clearly dissipated since then. For the last six weeks, the president and the PM have been sparring publicly. On Sept. 20, Leghari addressed ominous letters to the Supreme Court chief justice and Parliament. "People are fed up with corruption," he stated, adding, "A time for action has come."

The corruption complaints are uncomfortably similar to those of 1990. Now as before, Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's husband, is chief among those close to the PM accused of corruption and misuse of power. In response, Leghari pointedly reminded the prime minister that senior officials are required to declare their financial worth yearly. Bhutto has not done so for three years.

There are also charges of economic mismanagement. As her party's self-appointed finance minister, Bhutto has presided over an economy in which foreign-exchange reserves have dwindled to $750 million and inflation is soaring in the 15%- to-20% range. The International Monetary Fund, displeased with the government's handling of the economy, recently withheld an essential $80-million payment on a $600-million loan.

Outwardly, Bhutto has stood defiant. In a National Assembly speech last week, she reminded her audience, "We elected as our president somebody who had campaigned for the repeal of the 8th amendment." But her bravado may only partially obscure her faltering political fortunes. Observers say Leghari, known as the PPP's "Mr. Clean," is increasingly using his post and moral authority to direct the government on key issues. One prominent newspaper, The News, said, "The prime minister has virtually become a lame duck, defensive and extremely pliable."

A sign that Bhutto may finally be capitulating to mounting pressure came last week when she resigned from the finance portfolio. In her place, she has appointed Privatization Minister Syed Naveed Qamar. A major concession, perhaps. But her growing circle of adversaries may not rest until Bhutto makes the biggest concession of all -- stepping down as PM.


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