Musharraf grows desperate

Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan, may be willing to step down as a general ahead of the next presidential election — but only if all political parties re-elect him for the next five years and keep his powers intact.

He was due to leave the army in 2004 but reneged on that promise. The idea of him leaving his military post was first raised when he met exiled opposition leader Benazir Bhutto a few weeks back. He needs all the support he can get — even if Bhutto has been involved in corruption and Interpol is seeking her arrest on such charges — to shore up his position; although the economy has performed strongly during his rule, the country is in the midst of political turmoil.

In March, Musharraf tried to remove the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry, alleging the latter had abused his office for personal gain. Lawyers held protests at the suspension, but these attracted wider support and in turn led to opposition groups holding rallies against the president. Dozens of people died in clashes between demonstrators and police. Chaudry was reinstated by the Supreme Court in July with all charges against him dismissed.

The storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad has also damaged Musharraf’s domestic standing. Although the military has said no women or children were killed during the operation, it has fuelled tension between the government and radical Muslim groups (for a Q&A on the incident, go here).

After seizing power in the bloodless coup of 1999, Musharraf vowed to stamp out corruption. He has failed to do so. Pakistan is considered one of the most corrupt nations.

All of this is feeding into dissatisfaction with and opposition to Musharraf — with more than 54% feeling the military should have no role in politics and 65% wanting him to quit as president. That he is turning to politicians of dubious virtue in his bid to secure a “grand national reconciliation” is indicative of how desperate his situation has become.  He seems unwilling to give in to defeat, which admittedly is probably a good characteristic in a soldier.

Musharraf’s departure from the scene would be a significant setback for the US. It has been a notable ally against terrorism, although not a terribly effective one, in Asia, particularly because it shares a border with Afghanistan. Hawks in the US administration would also point to its border with Iran as reason enough to keep Pakistan on side.

As noted above, he has gone back on promises to step down as a general. There’s no reason he won’t do it again once he has secured power for another five years.

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