GREG WINTER. Welcome to the New York Times World View podcast, a weekly conversation with Times foreign correspondents from across the globe.I have it from a most trusted source that we can believe everything we see under the byline "Carlotta Gall". This is one of the reasons I've been paying so much attention to her lately.
I’m Greg Winter, a foreign editor at The Times.
This week I speak with Carlotta Gall, our correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, about the political crisis confronting Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
A pivotal American ally in the region, General Musharraf is facing the most serious challenge to his rule since he seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999. With little warning or explanation, General Musharraf suspended the chief justice of the nation’s Supreme Court in March, setting off a storm of protest that has riled the country for two months and left dozens dead.
Times correspondent Carlotta Gall has been covering this story and she joins us now from Islamabad.
Carlotta, why was the chief justice suspended? And why has his suspension caused such an uproar?I can definitely get in on the thanks. Thanks to the New York Times, thanks to host Greg Winter, and special thanks to Carlotta Gall.
CARLOTTA GALL. Well, it’s quite interesting because the government hasn’t actually released the official documents. But they have sort of leaked their case, which is that he was abusing his power, that he was demanding perks on the job. Nothing, really, that perhaps merits such an immediate removal from office in the way it was presented. So it was the way that it was done, the fact that his meeting with General Musharraf was shown on TV; the general was in uniform. He was then sort of hustled into his car and pushed and moved around by the police. So that made everyone very upset because they saw it on TV. So it’s quite interesting that it became a huge deal very quickly just because of the way he was being pushed around. He was then put under house arrest for a couple of days. And there was, I think, huge distaste in the legal ... in the courts and in the legal profession. But also I think generally among the people, that there was quite a visceral reaction to this is the way the army and the authorities treat people — without respect and in a heavy-handed manner. So that’s really why it became a very public cause. And I would say that mostly it’s lawyers who are supporting him, and political parties. But there has been an element of public support for him and very much because of the way it was handled.
GREG WINTER. And what is the motive here for the government to try to remove him even if it’s just a temporary move?
CARLOTTA GALL. Well, that again. Because they haven’t really laid their cards on the table, it is still being speculated about. But there are several reasons that most opposition politicians and even government people are suggesting he had made a bit of a name for himself: someone who was taking up the cases of the disappeared, as they’re called. There’s quite a large number of people in the last five years who have been detained but never appeared in court. They’ve rather disappeared into the system. They’ve been picked up by intelligence agencies. And there’s become a campaign to force the government to acknowledge their existence and say what they’re being charged with or why they’re being held. And the Supreme Court, and led very much by the chief justice himself, took this case up and demanded that the government and the intelligence agencies reveal who they were holding and under what terms. So that seems to have probably made him enemies in the government. But perhaps more, the political parties believe that because in the end it’s election year, because Musharraf has to try and seek a way to extend his term and keep his uniform as he wants, he’s going to have to tackle constitutional issues. And if anyone wants to bring a case appealing against his changes of the Constitution, it’ll go to the Supreme Court. And so the government was looking to have a more malleable person heading the Supreme Court. And this is the main theory from the opposition party just to why he was removed now.
GREG WINTER. As you mentioned, General Musharraf is both president and the chief of the army. And he wants the current Parliament to grant him the authority to keep holding both posts before a new crop of lawmakers are voted in. He also wants the outgoing Parliament in which his allies hold sway to re-elect him as president. Now as you mention again, opposition parties may bring cases to the Supreme Court to challenge both of those moves. But what would happen to those cases now that the chief justice, whose name is Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, now that he’s been suspended. What would happen to those cases?
CARLOTTA GALL. Well that’s the huge debate. And that’s what’s going on now. He’s challenging his dismissal. There’s a judicial council looking at that. He’s got lawyers who’ve made several petitions to — against the illegality of what’s happened. So the big debate is now: is he going to win or is the government? Is he going to manage to get reinstated or is the government going to succeed in sacking him? And there is an acting judge at the moment in his place.
But what’s quite interesting is this whole tussle has actually hardened the supreme court. And most people feel now the Supreme Court — all the judges on the Supreme Court — are starting to feel the weight of their office and feeling that they must do the right thing according to their office. So even people in the government are admitting that the whole mess of the last two months has actually strengthened the Supreme Court and made it harder, perhaps, for President Musharraf to get away with — from the constitutional issues where in the past, you know, chief justices have been more malleable and have often ruled in the favor of the government. So it’s very much up in the air. And this is why I think the political parties are getting so animated and everyone is talking of dark clouds, you know, massing because no one really knows how it’s going to play out.
GREG WINTER. Earlier this month, the protests over Mr. Chaudhry’s suspension grew particularly violent, with dozens being killed in Karachi. Can you tell us what happened and why tensions escalated to that degree?
CARLOTTA GALL. Well it was interesting because, again, it was over the chief justice. He was going to speak at the Bar Association in Karachi and he’s been doing this around the country. And he had a huge rally in Lahore the week before, which went peacefully. I mean it took an — it was a 25-hour cavalcade that he made driving down to the city, and a huge reception. But it all passed peacefully. He tried to do the same in Karachi and it went — it became very violent. And there’s a lot of accusations flying, but opposition parties are saying that it was the police who just left the city and didn’t install security measures properly. And that they also left a free hand to one of the opposition parties that’s opposed to the people — who supports the government and is opposed to the opposition parties that support the chief justice. And so what we saw was what Karachi has seen a lot in the past, of political clashes between political parties. And many of them are armed. There’s particularly one group that’s getting a lot of blame — the M.Q.M. — for having armed supporters on the street who opened fire on their rivals. And the police were just nowhere to be seen. So it was a real — either bungled or, perhaps more sinister, it was an effort to discredit the chief justice or to attack their party rivals. It quickly got out of hand and as you know, over 40 dead by the end of the day.
GREG WINTER. How serious of a challenge is this to General Musharraf’s office? I mean how likely is he to lose office?
CARLOTTA GALL. Again, that’s the great debate. His rivals, the opposition parties, say it’s only a matter of time now. He’s lost the confidence of a lot of people. At a lot of these rallies that are in support of the chief justice, you do hear people shouting, “Go Musharraf, Go.” But I think he is still chief of the army; he’s still president. And he doesn’t have any intention of going anywhere. So he can probably continue, unless, I think, there are more incidents like this, which really show that he’s losing control. Now there was a lot of talk after Karachi, but now he’s had a week of calm. And, you know, it looks like perhaps he can ride it out. But things can change very fast in Pakistan, so no one really knows. In the end, I think, he’s got, still, the backing of America. He’s still got the backing of, crucially, the army in Pakistan. And until those equations change, he can probably continue.
GREG WINTER. What has been the American reaction to the crisis?
CARLOTTA GALL. Well, as you know, America has backed Musharraf since 9/11 as a very important regional ally, probably the most important ally in the war against terror. So that remains the message coming from Washington. And it’s interesting that although he’s a military dictator who seized power in a coup seven and a half years ago, there’s not a lot of talk about the need for, you know, more democracy or for him to step down and hand over to a democratic government. So the most the American administration is saying is: abide by the Constitution; keep a peaceful state of affairs. So certainly the people of Pakistan feel they’re very much still backing President Musharraf.
GREG WINTER. Who really controls the keys to General Musharraf’s political future? Is it the voters? The Parliament? Or is it, as you said before, the army?
CARLOTTA GALL. I think it shows that Musharraf is keeping his uniform and he’s keeping the post, not only of president but chief of army staff — head of the army. That shows where the power lies. He doesn’t — he’s being pushed by many including the Commonwealth to give up his uniform and he’s not. And I think that proves everything — that the real power comes from his position as army chief. And I think the army has immense clout in Pakistan. It also has immense respect among the people. It is seen as not corrupt, and professional. And so I think they are the most important thing — equation in politics in Pakistan. And as long as the president has the backing of the army, he can carry on. When that changes, or they feel that he’s losing it — and we’ve seen this in the past — if the army feels that the president’s not handling things well, that’s when you see political changes.
GREG WINTER. Some of General Musharraf’s own supporters are urging him to quiet the criticism by opening the presidential election to his opponents living in exile. You recently talked to one of them: Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister who left the country under a cloud of corruption allegations. What did she have to say about this?
CARLOTTA GALL. She’s very worried, like many people are, about the extremism in Pakistan and argues that democracy is the way to dilute that extremism. You know, the sort of Islamist moves and the terrorism in Pakistan. And, so, she feels that the army, with its strong hand, has not been able to change that. So she argues that, of course, she wants to come back. She feels that she still has the largest popular party in Pakistan and should be allowed to come back. She says the corruption allegations are concocted and a ploy to keep her out of the political scene. But she does argue very much that only with democratic elections and free political association can you actually counter things like radical Islam. And so she’s calling for — to be allowed back and for, I think, and she’s not really calling for sort of any overthrow of Musharraf. I think she’s calling more for some sort of working relationship where they can bring in party politics back to the country, but also avoid any further violence.
GREG WINTER. Finally, there are, of course, everyday citizens now taking part in these protests over the judge’s suspensions. Is this outpouring over his case an expression of something larger, perhaps dissatisfaction with the government? Or is this an indication that he has actually become a well-known figure and a figurehead of some kind of opposition force?
CARLOTTA GALL. I think this is what actually we need to see to work on more to see really what is the feeling among the people. Certainly some of his rallies there have been very ordinary people turning out. And, you know, the immediate interviews we’ve done on the streets and the roads is that people want change. They’re quite tired of this government, just as any people get tired of one leader. But there is a great frustration over poverty, high prices, inflation, some very basic needs of the people. And, so, I think that can be garnered very quickly by political parties or opposition parties against Musharraf. On the other hand, he has had a fairly happy reception from people, certainly in the first years of his tenure, because people were so relieved to have a steady hand and some signs of prosperity and certainly some stability. So it all really depends now if he can make his case to persuade people that he can still improve things or if they will blame him for everything and demand change.
GREG WINTER. Carlotta Gall, Times Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CARLOTTA GALL. Thank you.
GREG WINTER. And thanks for listening. I’m Greg Winter of The New York Times. We’ll be back next week with another edition of World View.
There'll be no embedded reporting for this brave young woman, who has spent the past decade or more covering the wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Messy, dirty, "little" wars, and unless I am much mistaken, all very useful templates for anyone who wants to see more chaos in the Middle East.
The parallels continue to amaze me.