Musharraf Willing to Doff Uniform?

Musharraf Willing to Doff Uniform
Afzal khan/ Islamabad

Islamabad Aug 26: President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's trouble shooters have gone to London with a package that envisages doffing the uniform even prior to presidential election, The Nation has learned on good authority.

The presidential emissaries are believed to have begun direct and indirect negotiations with both exiled premiers, Ms. Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif. Inside Pakistan the main interlocutor is Leader of the Opposition Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

The package was firmed up in a top level meeting in Camp Office last Tuesday which was attended by the Chaudhry cousins, a couple of senior ministers. Hamid Nasir Chatha, top aides and security chiefs. The Prime Minister was conspicuous by his absence.

The central issue being discussed in these contacts revolves around the new formulation evolved in the Presidency to forge a national reconciliation involving mainstream parties. Its salient features include Musharraf's willingness to quit the army post provided he is accepted as president for next five years even while with truncated powers.

The President would not insist on getting elected from present assemblies given the commitment that the new assemblies would vote for him. The power to dissolve the assembly under Article 52-B would be withdrawn.

There would be general amnesty for all political leaders. The ban on two- time prime ministers would be removed. In return, the constitutional hurdles in Musharraf's candidature would also be removed.

The two exiled prime ministers have convened meetings of the Central Executive Committees of their respective parties, the PPP on August 28 and PML-N next day. The immediate focus is on the PPP against the backdrop of Ms. Bhutto's insistence on performance of the terms of the deal clinched on January 24 in the first meeting in Abu Dhabi and fine- tuned later on July 27 in the aftermath of the post- March 9 events that have eroded Musharraf's hold on power.

Ms. Bhutto is getting restive because of quiet outrage surging within the rank and file of the party over the deal and its resultant impact of PPP's total isolation. She has given a virtual ultimatum to Musharraf to hasten the promised implementation of terms of the deal. The Supreme Court verdict on Nawaz Sharif's petition and his determination to return to the country have added urgency to Ms. Bhutto's concerns because of the huge political space she has conceded to Nawaz by aligning with Musharraf.

The President's emissaries are trying to dissuade Ms. Bhutto from taking any desperate step that may further complicate the situation. To Nawaz Sharif the message being conveyed is designed to delay his return till an arrangement satisfactory to both sides is evolved. The Sharifs, however, are in a more belligerent mood. Unlike Ms. Bhutto who is prepared to work with Musharraf, Nawaz is seeking a pledge by the General that he would not contest next election.

The Chaudhry cousins prefer aligning with Fazl's JUI. The carrot being offered to him is repeal of the graduation qualification and possibility of creation of the post of deputy prime minister.

Reliable sources said the President had asked the participants in the meeting on Tuesday to undertake initiatives that, in their wisdom, may resolve the current crisis that is deepening by each passing day. He agreed with a consensus opinion in the meeting that the move to woo Ms. Bhutto has created more problems and antagonized friends and foes alike. Besides it has discredited her to an extent that she cannot sell the deal to her party nor provide much relief to Musharraf. .

The President has also been confronted with deepening dissension within the coalition. During discussion on the national reconciliation, the Chaudhry cousins reportedly argued that a national reconciliation could be evolved only by a non-controversial figure who should replace Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. The President asked them to convince Aziz which they tried in a meeting with Aziz next day.

The Prime Minister declined to resign and sought an urgent meeting with the President who backed off shifting the onus of making the suggestion on Chaudhry cousins. Aziz later flew to Lahore where he declared that he is a candidate to continue in his office after the elections as well. Shujaat responded immediately that no decision has been taken to that effect. Knowledgeable sources say Mr. Jamali's statement on these events is very close to the truth.

A major snag in the President's package is that while it envisages somewhat honourable way out to him in addition to five more years in office, his institution would return to barracks badly battered in the eyes of the public. In the meeting on Tuesday Musharraf even hinted at other options if the efforts for national consensus did not materialize. The obvious hint was imposition of martial law.

But analysts say the army would not like to stage a retreat to barracks fully discredited and dishonoured in the eyes of the people. Instead it would like to do something creditable that could restore its respect. The best possible option would be to hold free and fair elections, transfer power to the elected representatives sans Musharraf and return to barracks amid popular acclaim.

"If Musharraf imposes martial law, he would be its first casualty", said an insider. The next strongman would oversee democratic revival, facilitate appointment of a new army chief and himself retire honourably after salvaging the honour of his institution, he said.

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