ON MAY 12th the port mega-city of Karachi, a great and seething Asian bazaar, returned to the violence that has scarred its modern history. Around 40 people were killed and scores injured in two days of gun battles. Corpses were dragged from shot-up cars and displayed on the tarmac. Along Shahrah-e-Faisal, the main thoroughfare, shop-fronts were smashed and set ablaze. As the carnage spread, 15,000 police and paramilitary troops stood by, unwilling or unable to intervene.
Many reports suggest the violence was perpetrated by Karachi’s ruling party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), an ethnically-based mafia allied with Pakistan’s president and army chief, General Pervez Musharraf. Its target was an anti-government rally planned for Karachi on May 12th, at which thousands of lawyers and opposition supporters were to protest against General Musharraf’s efforts to remove the head of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Mr Chaudhry was due to address the rally.
If the MQM meant to deter General Musharraf’s opponents with violence, it failed. On May 14th opposition parties called a national strike to condemn the slaughter. They included the parties of two exiled former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and a coalition of Islamists, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). The MMA once backed the general, as Islamists in Pakistan usually have; but not any more. With an election due this year, Pakistani democracy is stirring from the coma it slipped into eight years ago, when General Musharraf seized power.
Its awakening, if that is what it is, may be traced to March 9th and a previously unimaginable event. In the presence of six other uniformed generals, at his army headquarters in Rawalpindi, General Musharraf ordered Mr Chaudhry to resign. The judge—eccentric, vain, some say incompetent—had upset his colleagues on the bench, and had given populist rulings against the government. More audaciously, he had demanded investigations into several of an alleged 400 cases where people have disappeared, mostly from his native Baluchistan, where an insurgency is flickering. These were probably the work of the powerful military intelligence agency, whose boss was one of the generals present.
Indeed, wherever Mr Chaudhry heard so much as a rumour of injustice—for example, in the reports of kidnapping and rape that fill the margins of Pakistani newspapers—he summoned officials and demanded investigations. Yet few seem to have loved Mr Chaudhry, until he refused General Musharraf’s order to resign.
This was an unprecedented event in Pakistan: a civilian telling a bullying general where to get off. General Musharraf, who has no power to sack judges, has filed a complaint against Mr Chaudhry to the Supreme Court. He alleges that the judge has abused his office, for example by currying favours for his policeman son. Meanwhile, Mr Chaudhry has been reborn as a hero of Pakistan’s long-dejected democracy. Egged on by black-jacketed lawyers, who were never so glamorous, he has criss-crossed the country, giving speeches on the sanctity of judicial independence. In a quadrangle of Lahore’s elegant British-built high courts, beside a soothing fountain and surrounded by red-brick colonnades, some of these lawyers are on hunger-strike—or, more accurately, skipping lunch.
Ordinary Pakistanis, too, have been flocking to Mr Chaudhry. On May 5th tens of thousands mobbed his car as it crawled 300km (190 miles) from Islamabad to a rally in Lahore. In the middle of Punjab, the army’s heartland, this was the first significant popular protest against General Musharraf. It was also the first by secular citizens, as opposed to Pakistan’s ever-livid Muslim zealots A week later, the repercussions were felt in Karachi.
A chronology of violence
Mr Chaudhry’s plane landed at noon on May 12th, and the violence began. Club-wielding hooligans charged a crowd of lawyers gathered at Karachi’s high courts. One suffered a broken leg, another a broken jaw, a third had his teeth smashed in. As crowds of opposition supporters, mostly from Ms Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), marched towards the courthouse, they were fired on with automatic weapons from rooftops and road-blocks.
Supporters of the Awami National Party, which represents Pushtuns, the people of north-western Pakistan, were also attacked. This sparked gun battles across Karachi between Pushtuns and Mohajirs—the MQM’s community, comprising those, like General Musharraf, who relocated to Pakistan from other parts of British India. Most of the dead were Pushtun. Despite a curfew, this ethnic conflict continued into the next day, raising fears of a return to the tribal war that raged in Karachi in the late 1980s.
As bloodied corpses arrived at the city’s main hospital, the MQM held a rally of its own. Ten thousand supporters gathered in Muhammad Ali Jinnah Street, named after Pakistan’s refined founding father, to hear Altaf Hussain, the party’s leader. Not that Mr Hussain was there. He has lived in London for 15 years, evading allegations of multiple murders. But his telephoned harangue was broadcast live. In the words of Farooq Sattar, Mr Hussain’s top representative in the city, “The opposition wants to show that Karachi does not belong to the MQM. We have accepted the challenge.”
At the airport, Mr Chaudhry was manhandled by the police and his retinue of lawyers was ordered to leave Karachi. He returned to Islamabad, where General Musharraf was also addressing a rally. Around 10,000 alleged supporters of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) party gathered in front of Parliament House; some told journalists that they had been made to attend against their will by local officials. After praising his ally, the MQM, General Musharraf said his “heart was bleeding” for Karachi. His hometown’s troubles, he said from behind a bullet-proof screen, were caused by Mr Chaudhry and his supporters. “Do not challenge us,” the former commando warned them, to general applause. “We are not cowards like you, we have the power of the people.”
General Musharraf, who has survived at least two assassination attempts, is certainly no coward. But his hold on power is increasingly open to question. Pakistan’s media, united in horror at the killings in Karachi, mostly blame him, and even before the recent events his popularity was slipping. According to a poll in February for the International Republican Institute, 54.2% of respondents said they approved of how General Musharraf was doing his job; 26% disapproved. When asked which leader they thought could handle their problems best, 32% picked General Musharraf and 25% Ms Bhutto.
In another poll, taken around the same time and circulated privately, the general fared worse. Asked which politician they most agreed with, 29% of respondents picked Ms Bhutto and 21.6% General Musharraf. Some analysts say both polls overstate the general’s popularity, since Pakistanis are afraid to speak ill of their uniformed ruler to an unknown questioner. And he is certainly less popular now than when the polls were taken.
But polls are of limited use in predicting his future. General Musharraf does not rule by the will of the people, but dictatorially within a hobbled democratic system. He ostensibly restored democracy in 2002, but meanwhile claimed huge powers for his office. As president, he can dissolve parliament on a whim. As army chief, he controls security policy—from a nasty war against Islamist militants in the northern tribal areas, to the orientation of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
This arrangement is cumbersome to manage. It requires a supplicant ruling party to vote through his diktats as handed down by a loyal prime minister, Shaukat Aziz (or “Short Cut”, as Pakistanis know him). And it requires sympathetic Supreme Court judges to head off any constitutional challenges that may arise. Before inviting the Supreme Court to legitimise his coup, General Musharraf felt compelled to sack half its members. Mr Chaudhry was elevated, in 2000, to fill one of the gaps.
In the coming months the judges will have other weighty business to decide. General Musharraf means to get re-elected as president by the current parliament. If he succeeds, he may then ask the next parliament to let him remain army chief, an office he is constitutionally obliged to quit at the end of this year. Long-winded challenges in the Supreme Court are assured. This is why the general’s failure to rid himself of a troublesome judge is so serious.
If Mr Chaudhry is dismissed, the clamour against General Musharraf will grow. (On May 14th a Supreme Court judge withdrew from the case against his colleague, and a senior court official who was close to Mr Chaudhry was murdered.) Then again, if Mr Chaudhry keeps his job, the general can hope for no love from the Supreme Court in any constitutional battle ahead. Either way, he will have been weakened.
How to tip an election
Even with a sympathetic judiciary, the forthcoming election represents a challenge for General Musharraf. On the last occasion he was hard-pressed to ensure that a supportive government emerged. The election was manipulated in the PML-Q’s favour, yet the PPP won the most votes. General Musharraf’s supporters persuaded ten PPP MPs to cross the floor; but the general was still short of the two-thirds majority he needed to change the constitution, until the MMA provided its support.
General Musharraf would struggle to repeat this performance. The popularity of the PML-Q—a rabble of renegades and opportunists recruited from Mr Sharif’s party—is falling with the general’s own numbers. Meanwhile, the PPP is growing stronger. According to the private poll conducted in February, 22.8% of respondents said they would vote for the “king’s party”, as the PML-Q is known; 31.7% chose the PPP. On May 5th, the day Mr Chaudhry’s caravan came to Lahore, the PML-Q had to cancel a rival rally for lack of support.
Neither can General Musharraf count on the mullahs. His campaign in the tribal areas, which border the MMA’s heartland of North-West Frontier Province, is bloody and hugely unpopular. More broadly, so is the general’s pro-America stance. In the private poll, Pakistanis rated India a more trusted ally than America, though America has given Pakistan an estimated $10 billion in aid, much of it military, since 2001. This puts the mullahs in a bind. The MMA’s bearded leader, Fazlur Rehman, is a lifelong accomplice of the army, a man whose alleged corrupt enjoyment of government contracts has earned him the name “Maulana Diesel”. Yet he is now turning up at rallies for Mr Chaudhry to defy dictatorship and defend democracy with the best of them.
After Karachi, the political situation is unstable and hard to predict. Some pundits predict General Musharraf will be forced to step aside, perhaps by the army itself. Failing this, he faces some distasteful choices. He can rig the election, as he did a 2002 referendum on his rule, though this would be more difficult against a pepped-up opposition. It might also annoy America, where support for him is flagging. According to Gary Ackerman, a Democrat who heads a congressional panel on South Asia, “The truth is, for our goals to be achieved in Pakistan, there should be more than one phone number there to dial.”
Alternatively, the general can amend his political system in one of two ways. He can make it more dictatorial. On May 5th Mr Aziz reminded journalists that the government could declare a state of emergency. (The Karachi stockmarket reacted by dropping 3%.) Or the general can expand his coalition, and so become a trifle more democratic.
He has been negotiating with Ms Bhutto about this for some time. She wants General Musharraf to rid her of the corruption charges, brought by Mr Sharif, that have kept her in exile. She would also like him to scrap the two-term limit that he has imposed on the office of prime minister; Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif have each held the office twice. For his part, General Musharraf wants the PPP to support his policies as a loyal opposition.
The potential benefits of their co-operation are clear. Pakistan’s military ruler and its most liberal party have a shared vision of a more tolerant society. The king’s party, whose leaders are as conservative as many mullahs, does not. PML-Q has refused to back General Musharraf’s more liberal initiatives, including at first his effort last year to overturn sexist laws of evidence that have ensured that over 80% of women prisoners in Pakistan are convicted of fornication, though many of them have been raped. With the PPP’s support, this law was partially repealed.
Ms Bhutto, despite much noisy bluster about the sanctity of democracy, would have no principled objection to forming a partnership with General Musharraf. Another irony of Pakistani politics is that, under her leadership, the country’s most anti-establishment party has been compliant towards the military establishment. On Ms Bhutto’s watch, Pakistan backed the Taliban in Afghanistan and sold nuclear secrets to Iran and North Korea. Mr Sharif, by contrast, the favourite politician of a former army dictator, Zia ul-Haq, proved stickier for the generals. He drove one army chief to resign and tried to sack another, General Musharraf—at which point, the general launched his coup.
In short, if the tide has not turned against General Musharraf, a marriage between the lady and the general looks convenient. But there is a tiny snag. They loathe each other. And they would have ample opportunities for a quick divorce. If, for example, Ms Bhutto unexpectedly swept the election, she might dump the general. And he could press the charges against her at any time. A deal between the pair would perhaps be more of a dalliance, conditional and undeclared.
But how would Pakistan fare under such an arrangement? It would at least be better than if General Musharraf grabbed power, as he might. According to one of his confidants, the general has developed the usual dictator’s tic of thinking himself indispensable. An alliance of convenience between him and Ms Bhutto might also be preferable to restoring the democracy Pakistanis enjoyed in the 1990s, when Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif conspired against each other and the army conspired against them both. After a decade of the instability and misrule that resulted, many Pakistanis welcomed General Musharraf’s coup.
The turn of the wheel
Such has been the political cycle in Pakistan: bad democratic government, yielding to unpopular military government and then to democratic messiness again. It is unclear whether the wheel is about to turn on General Musharraf’s rule. But it is a good moment to judge it.
Many of the general’s prescriptions have been excellent. In the management of the economy he has trusted sensible technocrats, including Mr Aziz. They have been blessed with an inheritance of liberal reforms and, above all, by booming capital inflows, not only from America. Yet they can take credit for strong economic growth, predicted to be 7% this year.
In foreign relations, too, right-minded policies have borne fruit. In the past three years Pakistan’s relations with India have been transformed from semi-war to almost-peace. A final settlement of the two countries’ problems, and above all the divided region of Kashmir, remains elusive; the rivals’ demands are simply incompatible. Yet General Musharraf has perhaps done more than any leader in either country to nudge them into line.
In both cases he made progress because those most directly affected by his policies, investors and the army, supported him. Where, more often, he has had little support for his policies, they have usually failed. In Baluchistan, Pakistan’s biggest and poorest province, where legitimate and longstanding local grievances are stoking an insurgency, General Musharraf’s solution has been to bomb the place. In the tribal areas, where chronic banditry and Islamist militancy are now complicated by drug money from Afghanistan and global jihad, his heavy-handed intervention has fuelled terrorism across Pakistan. On April 28th the interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao, was lucky to survive a suicide bomb in North-West Frontier Province that killed 29 people.
Even with more enlightened policies, solving such problems will take time—almost certainly, more time than the general has. Politics cannot be banished indefinitely, as those corpses in Karachi suggest. And neither, perhaps, can Ms Bhutto.