Fri, Jul 04, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Musharraf slips into quagmire set up by opponents


President Pervez Musharraf flies home from what's being called a measurably successful overseas tour this week into a worsening political deadlock, with speculation rife that tough action against the rebellious parliament is high on his agenda.

"The prospects of dissolution are more finely balanced than many people think," an Islamabad-based diplomat said.

"Musharraf is facing ridiculous opposition from all over the place. He's getting bogged down in detail.

"His vision is evaporating. He's spending all his time running trench warfare."

Other analysts say Musharraf is more likely to use the courts to curb the opposition, pointing to a challenge in the supreme court against the academic qualifications of mainly Islamist opposition member of parliaments (MPs) that could see them unseated.

Since October elections, which restored the first parliament since Musharraf's 1999 coup and were supposed to end his three-year military rule, only one piece of legislation has been passed: the national budget.

A loose alliance of secular and Islamic opposition parties are waging a bitter campaign to force him to surrender self-appointed power and his simultaneous post as army chief.

Most sessions of the 342-seat parliament, in which the pro-Musharraf coalition holds a slender majority, have descended into theatrics of shouts, slow chants, desk-slapping and foot-stomping by opposition MPs, forcing countless sessions to be abandoned.

The budget was only tabled on June 7 over a din of cantankerous opposition protests.

Twice last month the chamber was beset with hours of pandemonium, and the opposition is even pushing ahead with a no-confidence motion this Saturday on the parliament's deputy speaker after boycotting their own earlier motion against the chief speaker.

"He's more likely thinking of dissolution than he was a month ago. The budget session underscored that parliament is not working," the diplomat said.

"Musharraf is now staring down the barrel of an eight-month-old parliament, with no legislation passed except budget and no bills in progress.

"He's becoming increasingly frustrated, he can't do anything with his reform agenda ... he's being forced to trade off a lot of what he wants to do in terms of modernizing and moderating Islam," the diplomat said.

The Supreme Court challenge, sponsored privately by a lawyer, is most widely considered Musharraf's best alternative to avoiding the trauma of sacking the parliament, and the most effective means of wrenching compromise from Islamic parties, the most serious opposition force.

The lawyer has asked the court to unseat the MPs because they do not hold a university bachelor degree, which Musharraf made a prerequisite in a controversial decree just three months before the October polls.

Retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood stressed dissolution would be a last resort.

"If the paralysis of government continues, you can't rule out the scenario," he said.

"But it's the worst-case scenario," he said.

Dissolution would be close to political suicide, as even the army would have to reconsider its support of Musharraf, Masood said.

"He'll lose more than anyone else because it will mean he's failed, and it would mean his end, because in that scenario it would be difficult to last as army chief," he said.

Several observers believe Musharraf may have sounded out officials in the US on how they would view dissolution.

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