Musharraf’s grip falters in Pakistan

Times Staff Writer

When President Perez Musharraf survived back-to-back assassination attempts in 2003, he might have thought the worst was behind him. But now, after easily quelling any threat to his power during eight years of military rule, the general appears trapped in a labyrinth of his own making.

His attempt 2 1/2 months ago to sideline Pakistan’s independent-minded chief justice touched off nationwide protests that have coalesced into a full-blown pro-democracy movement. Islamic militants have established a firm foothold in the tribal borderlands, and vigilante-style followers of a radical cleric here in the capital have been kidnapping police officers and menacing those they consider to be promoting a licentious lifestyle.

Musharraf’s supporters are widely blamed for bloody street fighting this month in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, which killed more than 45 people, many of them workers for opposition political parties. And the general’s once-polished speeches and public statements lately have taken on a tone that alternates between shrill accusations and near-tearful pleas for understanding.


Longtime political allies are beginning to distance themselves from the 63-year-old Pakistani leader. And although top generals appear to be standing by him, even government ministers are silent in the face of withering criticism of his rule, or offering only tepid support.

“His position has become untenable, unsustainable,” said author and analyst Ahmed Rashid.

“I don’t see how he can hang on,” said journalist Zahid Hussain.

Musharraf faces stark choices, analysts say. He could hunker down and try to ride out the crisis, or move to declare martial law. He could seek to strike a deal with opposition figures, who are likely to spurn him. Or he could step aside.

“It’s a scenario that could play out over some time, or could play out quite quickly,” said Teresita C. Schaffer, director for South Asia affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “My experience is that in Pakistan, when things are in decline, they don’t go down a sloping ramp; it’s a series of steep stair steps.”

The United States is increasingly viewed as the main power propping up Musharraf in the face of calls that he resign as army chief, allow the creation of an interim government and call free and fair elections.

Some observers warn that the Bush administration’s continuing support for Musharraf at this crucial juncture could threaten long-term U.S. interests in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state considered an indispensable ally in the fight against Islamic insurgents across the border in Afghanistan.

“There’s a huge disappointment over the American position, a real sense that it is a shortsighted one,” said Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “This didn’t happen overnight. Every military government at some point loses its legitimacy.”

For the time being, the general appears to still have the backing of his patrons in the Bush administration, with whom he cast his lot after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That relationship has been clouded, however, by allegations that Musharraf’s intelligence services remain entangled with Islamic militants, including the Taliban.

“Are we pulling away from Musharraf? No,” said a U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition that she not be named. “Because that would be pulling away from the government of Pakistan.... We will not draw away from this relationship.”

The conventional wisdom has always held that Musharraf is a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalists, and that without him, the country could slide into a chaos that extremist groups would exploit.

But opposition parties insist that free and fair elections could instead empower a moderate, Western-leaning regime. Islamist parties won only about 12% of the vote in the last elections, in 2002, and many believe they would draw less support now.

“There’s this perception that if Musharraf goes, in come the Taliban,” said Sherry Rehman, a lawmaker with the Pakistan People’s Party, the political home of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, now living in exile. “That’s really not the case.”

Although they clearly have self-interest at stake, opposition leaders insist that the groundswell of support for Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whom Musharraf is trying to oust, has become a larger renunciation of military rule.

“I see this as a national movement. People with no previous interest in politics are saying to us, ‘Keep up the pressure,’ ” said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who also lives in exile. “Over the past six or seven years, you have had so many drops of water filling a glass, and finally it spills over.”

Musharraf derives much of his authority from his position as commander in chief, and he has resisted repeated calls from domestic opponents and the international community -- though not the United States -- to relinquish his army post. In an interview last week with the BBC, he described his military uniform as a “second skin” and said he could not imagine giving it up.

Senior army generals have derived enormous benefit from Musharraf’s close ties to Washington, and many analysts doubt they are willing to push him aside -- at least, not yet.

“At the moment, they haven’t turned against him. It’s too early,” said author Rashid, who has written extensively about Pakistani politics and Islamic extremists.

But there is general agreement that if the senior military echelon were to decide at some point that Musharraf had become a liability, he would have little choice but to go.

“The endgame, whatever it turns out to be, will come from the military,” said Hussain, senior editor at the Pakistani magazine Newsline.

Until the current turmoil erupted, Musharraf had planned to have himself reelected president by the sitting parliament, which his coalition controls, rather than waiting until after a new parliament is elected toward the end of the year. Groups including the New York-based Human Rights Watch say such a mandate would be a sham.

Chaudhry, the chief justice at the center of the controversy, had signaled that he would entertain challenges on constitutional grounds to Musharraf’s election plan, and to his retention of his military post if he sought reelection.

Even those close to Musharraf acknowledge that splits are surfacing not only within his ruling coalition, but also within his party. Last week, longtime political ally Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a former prime minister, resigned as a member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party without any explanation.

The general’s defenders, most of them in senior government posts, say he retains the support of the people.

“Things are not always as bad as they seem,” said Minister of State for Information Tariq Azim Khan, who also serves as a spokesman for the ruling party. “What is happening is that the opposition parties are using a purely legal issue for political purposes.”

Many observers believe Musharraf might have weathered this storm if not for the outbreak of violence May 12 in Karachi, when Chaudhry tried to travel to the city to address supporters. Gunmen from the Muttahida Quami Movement, a pro-Musharraf party, blockaded the road into the city and fired on opposition gatherings.

The bloodshed makes it almost impossible for opposition leaders, including Bhutto, to strike any kind of power-sharing deal with the general.

And opponents are growing bolder. The chief justice, making his first public statement since the start of the crisis, declared on nationwide television Saturday that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” an unmistakable swipe at Musharraf.

The president, for his part, continues to make the public rounds, though usually appearing before crowds of handpicked supporters. At one such appearance last week in the northern town of Mansehra, he appeared sweaty and distraught as he accused opponents of conspiring against him.

“It will be a day of supreme grief if these lies and deceptions triumph over truth and reality,” said the general, who was clad in a traditional white Pakistani tunic rather than his uniform.

“That would be a sad day for Pakistan, a day that would make me weep.”