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October 13, 1999
Musharraf keeps a nation guessing
Raja Asghar in Islamabad
Pakistan's army has once more seized control of the country in the name of stability, but a bankrupt economy and no hope of new cash will make it hard for the military to re-establish long-term control.
The nation's generals have ruled Pakistan for about half of its 52-year history, but this time they have not yet said how long they plan to stay at the helm, and significantly they have not yet dissolved Parliament.
Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf, who led the coup yesterday, after he was sacked by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said in a speech on state radio and television today that he would make a lengthy policy statement very soon.
Billions of dollars in soft international loans, the future of democratic government in Pakistan and relations with South Asia's other nuclear power, India, and the West are at stake.
Pakistan recently persuaded international banks to renew $ 877 million in lending, and the Paris club of western donors to roll over $ 3.3 billion in credits. But neither of the two deals has been formally ratified and could now be easily cancelled, political analysts said.
Also in doubt is receipt of a third tranche of a $ 1.56 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The third disbursement was under scrutiny even before the coup.
But the army has to do much more than soothe creditors.
India has already put its armed forces on high alert and expressed grave concern about the events in Islamabad.
The coup will thwart resumption of peace talks between the two countries, Indian political analysts said.
Only a few months ago, the neighbours stood on the brink of their fourth war after armed intruders occupied mountain-tops in Indian-held Kashmir.
The coup in Pakistan is also likely to set back relations with the United States, its cold-war ally.
At home, analysts also voiced doubts about the army's ability to tackle an acute economic crisis, a wave of sectarian violence and opposition demands for fresh elections.
The main opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto appeared to welcome the end of Sharif's strong-arm government midway through its five-year term.
But she called for elections to be held within three months.
''I fear that if elections are not held within three months the economic chaos will increase and the threat to Pakistan's territorial integrity (from India) will increase with the economic chaos,'' she told reporters in London.
But a former pakistan chief of staff said Gen Musharraf planned to set up an interim government that would last about two years.
''Musharraf will announce an interim government which will last two years or so,'' Aslam Baig told reporters on a visit to Berlin.
The coup appeared to end a power struggle between Sharif and his top brass. Sharif had sacked Musharraf while the general was returning from a visit to Sri Lanka yesterday.
Gen Musharraf took several hours after his flight home to make a broadcast and tell Pakistanis that the army had acted as ''a last resort'' to save a deteriorating situation.
But he kept the nation guessing on his immediate plans.
Unlike Pakistani military interventions in 1958, 1969 and 1977, Gen Musharraf did not formally declare martial law, which would have dissolved Parliament and abrogated or suspended the country's Constitution, which does not allow any army takeover.
Sharif could go to court to challenge his ouster, analysts said.
He won a previous challenge to his sacking in 1993 by then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan on disputed charges of misrule and was restored by the Supreme Court. But Sharif later resigned in an army-brokered deal for fresh elections.
A Pakistani president then had the constitutional power to sack a prime minister, but Sharif successfully argued that the president had failed to cite convincing grounds for the sacking.
The presidential power to sack a prime minister was removed from the Constitution by an amendment Sharif got through Parliament after he was elected for a second term in 1997.
Political analysts said it would be difficult for the army to get court approval of the toppling of Sharif, when the Constitution allows no such intervention.
But Gen Musharraf can count on a campaign opposition parties mounted in recent months to force Sharif to step down.
''The PPP expresses the hope that the military intervention will be only brief and steps will be taken to revert Pakistan to civil rule and democracy,'' Bhutto's party said in a statement.
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