TOPICS: Who heads the Pakistani government?

Sanjay Suri

Who heads the Pakistani government? It is General Musharraf as he took power in a military coup in 1999. But according to the Commonwealth, the head of government of Pakistan is “The Hon Shaukat Aziz.” That Shaukat Aziz is not quite prime minister the way Tony Blair is prime minister of Britain or Manmohan Singh the prime minister of India has not stopped the Commonwealth from naming Aziz rather than Musharraf as the head of the government.

The switch solves a particular Commonwealth problem with Pakistan. Under its declaration in Harare, 1991, the Commonwealth is committed to taking action against any regime that takes power in a military coup. That is given effect by recommendations from a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). But CMAG could not initiate action against the government in Uganda over the current unrest over the arrest of the opposition leader because it is not activated “unless there is a military or unilateral takeover,” Commonwealth secretary-general Don McKinnon told media on Friday.

But that was not the case in Pakistan in 1999, so the Commonwealth did take action by partially suspending it. It would be suspended only from the “councils” — the decision-making bodies of the Commonwealth. But this too cha-nged after the 2002 ‘election’ in Pakistan as it was considered to be on the road to democracy, and the suspension was lifted last year. But Pakistan remained ‘under watch’ for democratic progress, and the CMAG was asked to report on its progress in Malta meeting this week. CMAG, headed by Nigeria which itself was suspended similarly from the councils of the Commonwealth from 1995 to 1999 delivered a report Friday that was largely sympathetic to Pakistan. McKinnon and Maltese prime minister Lawrence Gonzi did not mention Pakistan when summing up ministers’ meetings and presentations. Nor was any reason offered why the Commonwealth has seen “significant” progress to democracy, particularly when the Pakistani opposition has been protesting against the lack of it.

Musharraf has made no secret that he, and not parliament, has the final say in the running of affairs in Pakistan. Before the election in 2002, Musharraf made sure he was ‘endorsed’ as President for five years through a referendum, widely seen as rigged. He has powers to change the prime minister, dissolve the cabinet and appoint senior officials. No explanation was offered by the Nigerians or by the Commonwealth how this amounts to “significant” progress towards democracy. In an extraordinary move, the Commonwealth skirted the question of its fractional acceptance of Musharraf by officially naming Aziz as head of government. On its part, Pakistan made sure that while Musharraf goes to Washington to meet President Bush, Aziz came to Malta for the Commonwealth meet. Where, for the Commonwealth, does that leave Musharraf? And that still leaves other unanswered questions about the Commonwealth view on Pakistan.