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Pakistan Swears In New Government

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

An entire year of dramatic events led up to the moment that Pakistan experienced today. Those events include six weeks of emergency rule in which thousands were detained. We've seen President Pervez Musharraf engineer the dismissal of dozens of top judges. And then there were street protests by lawyers, a relentless bombing campaign by Islamist militants, and above all, the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Today, Pakistan finally takes a major step forward. A new national assembly has been sworn in, weeks after its election. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Islamabad, and he joins us from the parliament building. What's happening there, Philip?

PHILIP REEVES: Well, this is a very triumphant moment for the winners of this election. One by one, they pulled up this morning in their Range Rovers and stepped happily out into a throng of cameras and armed police at the entrance to parliament before going inside to be sworn in. Now the winners are, of course, the Pakistan People's Party, now led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari. And alongside them are the party of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister. His party came second, and they've joined the People's Party Coalition. When Zardari arrived this morning, there was a frantic scrum, and his phalanx of black-suited security men almost ran him into the building. Inside the chamber itself, the new members said a prayer for Benazir Bhutto. When Zardari and Nawaz Sharif appeared side by side, there were approving volleys of table thumping.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Well, given that Pervez Musharraf is the president, though, is this really a step forward for democracy?

REEVES: Well, it is being hailed by some as a new political dawn, a milestone in the shift from presidential military rule towards democracy in which power resides primarily with the prime minister and parliament. But, you know, no one, Steve, is under any illusions here. Pakistan's seen plenty of false storms before, and looming on the horizon is a possible conflict between this new parliament and President Musharraf. The ruling parties have agreed, they agreed just over a week ago, that a resolution's going go to parliament within a month of forming a new government, and this will be about restoring the judges who Musharraf sacked. And if that happens, the old supreme will likely be restored, and that court might rule that Musharraf's recent reelection was illegal.

INSKEEP: So you have a possibility of Musharraf being forced out. Do you also have the other possibly that Musharraf could force this parliament out? Does he the power - at least constitutionally, legally - to do that?

REEVES: He does at the moment. But if he does, there will be uproar. He isolated now. He's unpopular. He's stepped down as army chief. The army's stepping back from politics. He can no longer be guaranteed military support. Some analysts do think he's about to go, but it is far from certain. And remember, the two parties, although they're committed by an agreement to try to strip some of Musharraf's core powers, including that one of his right to dissolve parliament, they do have a history of feuding. So they may not be united for very long.

INSKEEP: How serious are these two parties, these newly powerful parties, about cooperating with the United States in its war on terror?

REEVES: Well, the U.S. is watching all of this very, very closely. It's concern, of course, is that whatever new government emerges now will support the U.S. policy of cracking down hard on Islamist militants to al-Qaida and the Taliban and the tribal areas in particular, and that means using military force. Talking this morning to members of this new parliament as they arrived, they overwhelming expressed support for dialog with the militants, and they opposed any military action on Pakistani soil carried out by the Americans.

INSKEEP: One other question for you there in Islamabad, Philip Reeves. You mentioned that there's a possibility that the major opposition parties, the major leading parties now in parliament might not be able to cooperate. Is it clear who their prime minister, their leader is going to be?

REEVES: It's not yet clear. And I should add, Steve, the Pakistan People's Party, when it comes to open confrontation with Musharraf, is far more ambivalent about that than Nawaz Sharif. But, no, this issue of prime minister is going to be decided sometime this week. It may even be Asif Ali Zardari himself. He's not a member of the parliament, so he would need to secure a seat in a bi-election. But there seems to be a consensus in the party that he would be the right man.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is on a busy street in Islamabad, Pakistan, witnessing dramatic events there where a national assembly has been sworn in today. Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.