"Musharraf Must Grab Last Chance of Glory": Can He?

Musharraf Must Grab Last Chance of Glory
By Jo Johnson: August 15 2007: Financial Times

Divide and rule is the oldest move in the general's play-book. President Pervez Musharraf is now close to co-opting Benazir Bhutto into a power-sharing arrangement that would artificially prolong his political life. This is a sad reflection on the opportunism of Pakistan's biggest political party.

The "deal", brokered by the US but yet to be finalised, is premised on the cynical and misplaced assumption that Pakistanis, ruled by the military for more than half their history, have lost hope of real democracy and will settle for a sham so long as it comes with a modicum of administrative competence.

At their meeting in Abu Dhabi on July 27, Ms Bhutto and Mr Musharraf set out their positions. Mr Musharraf wants the Pakistan People's party to ease, or at least not obstruct, his re-election as a president in uniform. In return, Ms Bhutto expects him to provide (yet another) pledge that he will step out of uniform at some point in the future, and drop corruption charges that stop her returning to Pakistan. She also wants Mr Musharraf to amend a law barring her from a third term as prime minister and to promise not to rig the parliamentary elections – or at least not to rig them against the PPP.

Only Ms Bhutto can judge whether such a compromise would betray the memory of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former prime minister executed in 1979 by Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, an earlier general propped up by Washington. There is little doubt, however, that she has violated the Charter of Democracy – the programme that she and Nawaz Sharif, her political rival, signed in May 2006 in order to "save the motherland from the clutches of military dictatorship". As Mr Sharif – who was ousted in Mr Musharraf's October 1999 coup – points out, both leaders promised not to "solicit the support of the military to come into power".

A stage-managed transition to a qualified form of democracy may suit Washington. But it will fall far short of popular expectations in a country now itching to send the army back to the barracks. Calls from Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, and President George W. Bush for free and fair elections are disingenuous. "They can't really mean that because it would mean an unpredictable outcome and that could lead to chaos," says Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "They want a brokered deal. That's the priority. They're not looking at the long-term political situation in Pakistan. The only thing that matters for the US is Afghanistan."

In the wake of the siege of the Red Mosque, Mr Musharraf's relations with the religious parties that once served as vital intermediaries with the Taliban in the tribal areas have collapsed.

The hope is that Ms Bhutto's grass-roots organisation will reach areas the army cannot: together Ms Bhutto and Mr Musharraf will form Pakistan's best opening pair in a war pitting "moderates against extremists", as Mr Musharraf puts it. Once back in power, the Harvard-educated Ms Bhutto will also help the US to market the military regime internationally as a progressive and democratic Islamic ally, a natural partner in the promotion of democracy in the Muslim world.

The risk is that a deal damages Ms Bhutto more than it buttresses Mr Musharraf. While the PPP is unlikely to split, given its thirst for power, it could lose popular support by association with Mr Musharraf. His approval rating fell from 54 per cent in February to 34 per cent in June, according to last week's poll from the International Republican Institute in Washington. The liberal elite is none too impressed. After fighting to reinstate chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, many lawyers, for example, object to a pact that undermines the rule of law by making the prosecution of legal cases a subject of political horse-trading.

There is also dangerous ambivalence in the army. While the generals appreciate that Ms Bhutto is the best hope for a steady flow of US arms and money, they fear her unpredictability and dislike the corruption associated with her first two terms in office. They also worry that she may avenge her father's hanging, the assassination of her brothers and her several stints in jail. Some would prefer a deal with Mr Sharif. Either way, there is no chance that any civilian leader who comes to power by invitation from the army will be able to wrest control of the country's rogue intelligence community, nuclear programme or jihadi assets in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The irony is that Mr Musharraf still has a slim chance of going out in a blaze of glory, as the man who moved Pakistan furthest towards peace with India and oversaw one of the fastest periods of economic growth, however flawed, in the country's 60-year history. To cement this legacy, he now needs to abandon all the back-room deal-making, withdraw from the presidential election and allow all exiled political leaders home in time for the parliamentary polls. He then needs to work with these leaders to reimpose civilian control over the army on a sustainable basis.

Unless he seizes this chance, Pakistan will remain trapped between autocracy, democracy and theocracy for years to come. The spread of extremism in today's political vacuum is a threat not just to Pakistan but to the world far beyond its borders. While the US would prefer a measured withdrawal of the military from political life, the moment for equivocation has passed. Another round of divide and rule will be fatal. If the US wants to play a positive role in Pakistani politics, it should urge Mr Musharraf to restore democracy before it's too late.

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