One former prime minister in exile has been given permission to return home. Another, also in exile, is doing a deal with the military ruler to return. Both politicians hope to contest the election scheduled for spring but which could come this fall.The ruler himself, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is on the ropes, abandoned by both the right and the left.
Surely, democracy is returning to Pakistan. Not quite.
Musharraf is not done yet, backed as he is by the U.S. And former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto are not the best of torchbearers for civilian rule.
Bhutto was elected twice and dismissed twice ('88-'90 and '93-'96) by civilian presidents for corruption.
Sharif's own two terms ('90-'93 and '97-'99) were marred by crony capitalism and authoritarianism. He was jailed on several charges, including tax evasion. In 2000, he signed a deal to exile himself to Saudi Arabia (once the home of Idi Amin of Uganda). On Thursday, the Pakistani supreme court ruled that that deal was not legally binding.
If Sharif does return, he may be led back to jail, a prospect he doesn't seem to mind; it could help transform him from convict to martyr.
Bhutto won't return until Musharraf drops the corruption charges still pending against her, a matter the two discussed at a not-so-secret meeting in Dubai July 27.
She and Sharif also want the rules changed to let a prime minister serve a third term.
Musharraf, too, has his wish list.
He was elected in 2002 by the National Assembly and the four provincial legislatures. His term ends in October, and theirs soon after. He wants them to re-elect him.
Not kosher, say his critics; he should wait and seek a mandate from freshly elected assemblies after the election.
But if he insists on a vote now, he'll be challenged in the supreme court. His nemesis, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, may nullify the vote.
To pre-empt that possibility, Musharraf summoned the judge to his house March 9. Four other senior generals were there. They said he should quit, for misuse of power - such as insisting on being driven around in a high-end Mercedes.
He refused to be intimidated, launched a media-savvy campaign addressing protest rallies, and appealed to his own court. It reinstated him July 20.
(The controversy at least proved that the judiciary is independent and the media, enjoying record profits under a strong economy, are free. In the current euphoria, people haven't got around to asking whether the court has crossed the line into politics and why Chaudhry isn't recusing himself in cases where he arguably has a conflict).
Meanwhile, the Islamists have been nipping at Musharraf's heels for being an American ally in the war on terrorism.
Ironically, the Bush administration is not happy with him either. Not for his violations of human rights, such as the disappearance of nearly 300 people, but for not killing Al Qaeda and Taliban faster than America is making them.
Besieged, Musharraf turned to Bhutto - with Washington playing matchmaker. It wants him but with a democratic gloss. In return for her becoming prime minister, her People's Party can help him stay on.
There's only the issue of his uniform to be sorted out. A legal compromise allowing him to hold the posts of both president and chief of staff runs out Dec. 31. Justice Chaudhry may have a view on that, too. So, Bhutto and Musharraf are working on how to get around that.
The exercise may yet backfire.
Sharif could conceivably win. That might prompt the general to declare martial law. Or, his deal with Bhutto might demoralize pro-democracy forces, making the Islamists even stronger.
Rather than the dawn of democracy, we are witnessing cynical ploys by several self-serving parties, with Washington right in the thick of it.
Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday in World and Sunday in the A-section. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007 The Toronto Star