Balancing acts in Pakistan
BBC: October 23, 2007
Ahmed Rashid, guest journalist and writer on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, reflects on the decisions now facing Pakistan's army and Benazir Bhutto.
Pakistan's long running political crisis may have taken a dramatic turn for the worst after the attempted assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Karachi last week that left 139 people dead.
The future of what is just a tentative alliance between Ms Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf could be in jeopardy as mistrust between the two deepens, while right-wing politicians and extremists try and undermine that alliance.
Whether general elections will go ahead as planned in January is now uncertain. The political wrangling will be a major blow to international efforts to persuade the army to stem the tide of extremism that is sweeping the country.
A year ago some optimistic Pakistanis were hopeful that Gen Musharraf was serious about trying to find an exit route for the army which would move it out of the political frontline, creating a national political consensus and leading a transition to a genuine civilian democracy with an empowered prime minister and parliament.
Instead it looks to many as if Pakistan's broader political needs were sacrificed to Gen Musharraf's aim of getting himself elected as president for a second term.
In the process the political climate worsened as Gen Musharraf confronted the opposition parties, the judiciary, lawyers and civil society.
In the meantime, the extremist Pakistani Taleban launched a wave of suicide bombings across the country and grabbed more territory in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan where al-Qaeda has a base.
It seemed clear to critics of the military that the army was looking for neither an exit strategy nor a transition and instead wished to perpetuate a military-dominated political system.
Sources say that only heavy international pressure, particularly from Washington and London, forced the army to negotiate with Ms Bhutto so she could return and participate in the elections.
The massive public turnout for Ms Bhutto in Karachi has shocked the political and military establishment and demonstrated that despite rumblings of discontent among her workers about working with the army, her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) remains the only coherent and nationally based political organisation in the country.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League and its splinter group led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif remain largely confined to support from Punjab province.
Even though the army may mistrust and even loathe Ms Bhutto, they have no choice but to work with her. There can be no political stability in the country without taking her on board.
Now after accusing elements in the intelligence services of being in league with the extremists who possibly organised the bomb attack against her convoy, Ms Bhutto has placed Gen Musharraf and the army on the defensive.
The military could retaliate by declaring an emergency and postponing general elections.
But that would once again put them into a confrontation with the entire political opposition and the activist Supreme Court, which is unlikely to allow any such delay. The US is unlikely to endorse any such measure.
The army's second option would be to hold elections but rig them selectively, just as it did in the 2002 referendum on Gen Musharraf's presidency, so that the PPP does not win a ruling majority and Ms Bhutto cannot come to power.
It is already apparent that normal campaigning by any political party will not be possible with the present threat of extremist violence.
Political rallies, public meetings and door to door campaigning by the candidates are likely to be heavily curtailed.
The public will probably be deterred from participating in such events in large numbers as the threat of more suicide bombs linger.
Under such circumstances the elections may turn out to be a half hearted affair with voter turnout much lower than normal. That would make it easier to rig the results as low turnout figures are easier to manipulate.
If there were an indecisive election result, the army could then force Ms Bhutto into an alliance with the ruling PML and the Jamiat Ullema Islam, the leading Islamic fundamentalist party which is pro-Taleban.
Such a coalition government, beset by infighting and contradictions would allow Gen Musharraf and the army to retain effective power.
At the same time Gen Musharraf's dwindling popularity, his half hearted moves against the extremists and the army's stark failure in defeating the Pakistani Taleban in the tribal borderlands, contrast sharply with Ms Bhutto's determination to confront rather than appease the extremists.
Her defiance goes down well in Washington and other Western capitals, but not with the army which since 11 September 2001 has played a double game of giving sanctuary to some extremists while attacking others.
Moreover other political parties and much of the mainstream media are either too scared to condemn the extremists, or they sympathise with them and do not want to appear pro-American or antagonise that section of the public which has become far more religiously conservative since Ms Bhutto was last in Pakistan nine years ago.
This is the political minefield through which Ms Bhutto now has to travel.
The army needs her for a limited agenda of cobbling together a future government that would satisfy its American backers, but not decrease its own powers or force it to go after all extremists.
She needs the army to survive, ensure that former corruption charges against her do not resurface. She can only hope that public mobilisation which the PPP demonstrated in Karachi, may force the army to hold a free and fair election.
In the long term most of the political cards are still held by the army. Ms Bhutto and other liberal parties have to now try and manoeuvre to make it impossible for the army to accept nothing less than a free and fair election.
In the meantime the bombers will try and ensure that stability evades Pakistan.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. He is the author of three books including Taliban and, most recently, Jihad. He has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the past 25 years and also writes for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Daily Telegraph and The Wall Street Journal.