Musharraf on his way out?

Don't tempt the gods
Najam Sethi's Editorial; the Friday Times, January 11-17, 2008 - Vol. XIX, No. 48

The elections will be held on 8th January, come hell or high water", insisted President General Pervez Musharraf last November. But his pledge was broken. The election commission clutched at the sporadic destruction of some property in Sindh following the murder of Benazir Bhutto on December 27 to postpone the polls until February 18, despite the fact that the PPP, PMLN and JUI all wanted the polls on January 8 as scheduled. This has triggered a now universally held view that the ruling PMLQ is running away from the elections because it is afraid of being drowned in the tidal wave of sympathy for the PPP. But if the fortunes of the PMLQ don't improve significantly in the next month or so, what will be the fate of the elections? Will some other leaders be killed, will there be fresh disturbances, to compel a further postponement?

Originally, it was a matter of faith with the opposition parties that the January 8 polls would be rigged to ensure that the PPP and PMLN combined did not get a majority in parliament and create problems for President Musharraf. Indeed, this was Ms Bhutto's major fear and she never tired of stressing it. On the eve of her assassination, she was scheduled to release a detailed report on how this rigging was going to be done and had threatened a post election boycott and even civil war if the elections were rigged. Now President Musharraf has admitted that he tried to pressurize Ms Bhutto not to return to Pakistan in October and he was angry when she defied him with American backing. He had hoped to conduct the 2007 elections with the same degree of leverage as in 2002 when he kept both Ms Bhutto and Mr Nawaz Sharif out of the country and contrived "suitable results" with the help of the MMA.

Under the circumstances, everyone believes that the Musharraf regime will definitely rig the February 18 polls to thwart the rising might of the PPP and PMLN. From this it follows logically that the regime will start by trying to undermine the PPP and Asif Zardari. This campaign will be conducted along several fronts. Mr Zardari will be painted as the villain of the piece. The NRO will be challenged by high powered lawyers so that criminal and corruption cases against him can be trotted out and aired even if a conviction is impossible. The Swiss case will be dusted off the shelf. Stories of Mr Zardari's "infidelity" to the martyred Ms Bhutto or "moral turpitude" may even be concocted. His "political immaturity" will be drummed up. The ethnic Punjab vs Sindh card may be played to scare away PPP voters in the Punjab. Stories of "splits" in the PPP and "insults" to Makhdum Amin Fahim will doubtless be planted in the media. And, if all this fails to yield the desired results, the regime may sound out the Supreme Court on a further postponement of the polls.

That would be a blunder. Every attempt to rig a resolution to the crisis of President Musharraf's personal legitimacy and power will eventually pit the parties and the people they lead against the army that President Musharraf avowedly represents. This will hurt the national interest. But there is a more compelling practical reason to have a popular and legitimate civilian government in the country as soon as possible.

By all accounts, the Bush administration is soon going to turn on the heat in the war against Al-Qaeda and Taliban by a forceful and more direct intervention in Waziristan. This is necessitated by the compulsions of US domestic policies in the year of the presidential election. President Bush's attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 to root out Al-Qaeda was distracted by the war in Iraq. Now the situation is precipitous. Every US presidential candidate is trying to outdo the other in focusing on "Musharraf's Pakistan" as being part of the problem of Al-Qaeda-Taliban rather than the solution as preached by President Bush. In fact, Pakistan's growing instability under President Musharraf and his inability or unwillingness to uproot the extremists and terrorists has raked up the specter of "Pakistani nukes falling into the wrong hands". The climactic reaction has come from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief, Mohamed El Baradei, who recently said: "I fear that chaos... or an extremist regime could take root in that country which has 30 to 40 warheads". In order to keep the difficult relationship with the US on an even keel and without provoking a popular backlash, Pakistan needs a fairly elected and legitimate civilian government in Islamabad.

In an earlier editorial we had argued that President Musharraf had lived out seven of his nine lives. The assassination of Ms Bhutto and the mass finger pointing at Islamabad has now deprived him of his penultimate political life. If he still insists on rigging the elections or postponing them, he will surely go down by provoking a popular resistance and may take Pakistan with him by triggering a foreign intervention. Already the foreign media is writing of General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani as the "new hope for Pakistan rising in Musharraf's shadow". Musharraf should not tempt the gods.

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