Sun, Sep 30, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Pervez Musharraf moves heaven and earth to hold onto power

Over the years, he has rigged referendums and browbeat the judiciary; a president's modernizing vision has degenerated into a dictator's power-driven myopia

By Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Pakistan's embattled president, Pervez Musharraf, once declared, "I am not at all a politician. I don't think I'm cut out for politics."

Eight years after seizing power and exiling his main civilian opponents, the general is moving heaven and earth to hold on to political office.

Though he took power in a bloodless coup, there was little doubt about his popularity at the time. The public had tired of a civilian regime marked by corruption and economic chaos. Musharraf's personal frankness and integrity appealed to the street and earned him de facto legitimacy.

The general, who offered the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, as his model, also seemed to represent a vision that combined economic growth with support for secularizing impulses.

But, given his unwillingness to seek support for his regime and his policies from the ballot box, Musharraf succeeded in undermining both. Over the years, he rigged referendums, browbeat the judiciary, and asked Islamic parties for support to shore up his government. A president's modernizing vision degenerated into a dictator's power-driven myopia.

In March, he sacked the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mukammad Chaudhry, probably because Chaudhry objected to Musharraf's seeking a constitutionally questionable third term as president. It proved to be the tipping point, triggering waves of protests in Pakistan's main cities. Unable to vote the general out of office, the public took to the streets. Polls show Musharraf's support has fallen to a third of the population, and that two-thirds oppose his seeking another presidential term.

Simultaneously, there has been considerable erosion of support from Musharraf's strongest external backer, the US. After he seized power, the US welcomed Musharraf's willingness to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban on his territory in exchange for large infusions of military aid. But, given the long-standing relationship between Pakistan's Islamic militants and the military, the limits to how far Musharraf was prepared to go in the "war on terrorism" became clear.

Musharraf is now desperate to beg, steal, or borrow any political legitimacy he can get -- including from the two civilian political leaders he exiled. His most ambitious strategy has been to try to form a partnership with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the head of one of the two largest democratic parties. Bhutto initially saw this as an opportunity to end her exile and ease herself into the prime ministership with a politically wounded partner.

The other civilian leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, responded by defying his exile, returning to Pakistan, and promptly being re-expelled. But Sharif succeeded in undermining the Bhutto-Musharraf plan, positioning himself as Pakistan's genuine champion of democracy. In one move, he reversed the Pakistani political dynamic: being farthest from the dictator became more valuable than being closest to him. Unsurprisingly, Bhutto is now having second thoughts about an alliance with Musharraf, who has been reduced to chasing after her in an effort to salvage the deal.

Musharraf, according to his lawyer's depositions before the Supreme Court, plans to give up his uniform after the indirect presidential elections he scheduled for Oct. 6. In preparation, he has replaced senior generals in the Pakistani army with officers considered more beholden to him, evidently hoping that this will ensure the military's loyalty even after he removes himself from the chain of command.

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