Musharraf's departure will not bring peace

Pakistan is breathing a sigh of relief - but Musharraf has left the country in a total mess

Farewell, President Pervez Musharraf. The military dictator of Pakistan jumped ship and resigned on 18 August, before he could be impeached. Pakistan is breathing a sigh of relief. There is dancing in the streets. Even the stock market is bouncing back.

Musharraf's departure is no surprise. His popularity had nosedived when his allies lost the February general election. Even the army that brought him into power in 1999 deserted him. A detailed charge sheet, with allegations that the president had diverted $700m of US aid for the "war on terror" to the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and for his own purposes, was ready to go to parliament. But his fate was really sealed when Washington began to refuse to take his calls.

Musharraf's exit is a victory for the two main political parties in Pakistan. The Pakistan People's Party, now led by Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister who was deposed by Musharraf, collaborated with each other to remove the former general. Zardari and Sharif stood their ground and refused to give in to pressure from the US, Britain and Saudi Arabia, the former general's main supporters.

Musharraf has left his country in a total mess. The "war on terror" is being lost. The economy is in tatters, with inflation out of control, at its highest for 30 years. Stocks have plummeted and the rupee has lost a quarter of its value in less than three months. Basic commodities such as wheat, sugar and oil are beyond the means of most Pakistanis. Power cuts are a daily occurrence. The issue of the Supreme Court judges removed by Musharraf remains unsettled. The relationship with neighbouring India has deteriorated severely. The removal of an exceptionally unpopular ex-general from power will buy the politicians some time. But they won't have long before the populace takes to the streets again.

Zardari's popularity is already on the wane. There is little love lost between him and the judiciary. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, whom Musharraf suspended in March 2007 as chief justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court and who led the initial agitation against Musharraf, has an intense hatred for Zardari. Not surprisingly, Zardari is not keen to restore him. A reappointed Chaudhry would pursue long-standing corruption charges against him and probably overturn the amnesty Zardari received from Musharraf through a special ordinance.

Than there is the all-powerful army. Further unrest, economic woes, and food riots in particular could bring the military back into politics. The armed forces are also keeping a beady eye on relations with India. If Delhi flexes its military muscle, the army would be keen to take over. Paradoxically, India would prefer a strong military leader in Pakistan. It has already expressed concern that Musharraf's departure has left a power vacuum, giving free rein to radical extremists.

But most Pakistanis regard India's existence as an opportunity rather than a threat. There is a strong people's movement dedicated to developing friendly bilateral relations. A large contingent of NGOs and citizens turned up at the border post of Wagah, near Lahore, on 15 August to celebrate the independence day of the two countries. They responded enthusiastically to shouts of "Long live Pakistan!" from the Indian side. When the Indians and Pakistanis started dancing together, however, the Pakistanis were baton-charged and beaten up: the military does not approve of too much familiarity.

It is up to Sharif, the more experienced partner in the governing coalition, both to keep the army at bay and to restore good relations with India. He has been obsessed with taking revenge on Musharraf, to the extent that he paid little attention to Pakistan's worsening security situation and the collapsing economy. Now, with Musharraf out of the way, Sharif can turn his considerable political skills towards more pressing problems. Where Pakistan goes next depends a great deal on him.

Ziauddin Sardar's "Balti Britain: a Journey Through the British Asian Experience" is published by Granta Books (£25)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession