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It’s open season on Musharraf

Times Staff Writer

From his fruit stand not far from the entrance to Pakistan’s sprawling military headquarters, vendor Ismail Iqbal sometimes sees President Pervez Musharraf’s motorcade sweep past, all swoosh and speed and tinted windows.

And every time, he said, it infuriates him.

“Big man,” he said scornfully. “Big car. Big house. And for what?”

More than three months after his party’s decisive defeat in national elections, Musharraf remains a lightning rod for the resentments of many ordinary Pakistanis.

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His foes clamor for his ouster. Newspapers editorialize against him. Old rivals publicly mock him. Last week, he was compelled to deny rumors that the new ruling coalition, with the support of senior army generals, had extracted from him a pledge to step down soon.

“It’s really open season for Musharraf-bashing,” said Rasul Baksh Rais, a Lahore-based political analyst and professor.

Even visiting lawmakers from the United States, Musharraf’s biggest backer, are speaking openly of what a mistake it was in years past to build America’s Pakistan policy around one man. But despite diminished powers and a ravaged reputation, the 64-year-old Musharraf, the consummate political survivor, has managed to cling to some semblance of his former life.

He makes official trips to foreign capitals. He receives visiting dignitaries. He still lives in the spacious home reserved for the head of the military, a position he relinquished under pressure late last year.

And although Pakistan’s parliament within weeks could take up a package of constitutional reforms expressly intended to curtail his remaining authority, he still wields enough power to make the country’s new rulers nervous.

As president, he technically has the ability to dismiss the government and dissolve the parliament. He appoints provincial governors, who in turn dispense patronage in return for loyalty. He retains the support of many in Pakistan’s powerful and change-averse bureaucracy.

Musharraf has said he intends to serve out the five-year term he won last fall from the previous rubber-stamp legislature. His rivals say the vote was legally invalid because he was still army chief at the time.

The new parliament could impeach him but that would require a two-thirds majority in both houses, and the government coalition does not have that level of strength.

Although his party’s electoral defeat in February was a body blow, Musharraf might now be taking some grim satisfaction in watching his successors struggle, with little success so far, to gain some political traction.

After two months in office, the ruling coalition, made up of the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is deeply divided, with no real policy accomplishments to point to.

Cabinet ministers from Sharif’s party last month quit in protest over the coalition missing its own deadline to reinstate judges fired last year by Musharraf when he declared a state of emergency. The resignations were not accepted, but the result has been near paralysis of the government.

The judges’ reinstatement -- including that of the outspoken chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry -- would make it extremely difficult for Musharraf to continue in office, not least because they could move to invalidate his reelection. The Supreme Court was thought to be poised to do so when Musharraf imposed the emergency decree in November, suspending the constitution and jailing thousands of opponents.

While the deadlock over the judges drags on, urgent issues -- a faltering economy, soaring food prices and rolling power blackouts that afflict even the once-orderly capital, Islamabad -- have gone unaddressed.

Those problems came to the fore in the months just before the elections, and many Pakistanis pinned the blame on Musharraf. But the new government is uneasily aware that without some sign it is finding solutions, it could find itself the focus of public ire in what looks to be a summer of discontent.

“Look, it takes some time -- everyone understands that,” said storekeeper Pervaiz Khan, mopping his brow in the midst of the third hourlong power cut since opening time. Darkened and sweltering, his electronics shop had drawn almost no customers that day.

“But even if these are problems that were inherited by those in charge now, they still must be tackled soon,” Khan said. “Very soon.”

Aware of this restiveness, the new government has resorted to symbolic popularity-enhancing moves such as easing restrictions on Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist who confessed in 2004 to providing nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea and has been under house arrest since.

The scientist, regarded by many Pakistanis as a national hero for his role in making the country a nuclear power, has lately been allowed to grant interviews to the Pakistani press for the first time in years. In one, he spoke scathingly of the president, saying Pakistan “went to the dogs” during Musharraf’s rule.

The Bush administration, belatedly in the eyes of many Pakistanis, has been trying to build a relationship with the country’s new leadership, made up of onetime opposition figures who were largely ignored by the Americans before winning the February elections. But continuing support for Musharraf, still seen as a vital ally by the Bush administration, serves to fuel already strong anti-American sentiment among Pakistanis.

Some other Western governments share the American view of the postelection landscape: that Musharraf’s abrupt ouster could lead to dangerous instability in Pakistan. But three Western diplomats in Islamabad, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, said the United States blundered badly by not reaching out earlier to figures from across the political spectrum.

As much pressure as Musharraf is under, some of his rivals have been feeling comparable heat -- because of Musharraf.

Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower and the leader of her party, had initially telegraphed willingness to allow Musharraf to stay on as president, though in a largely ceremonial capacity. But Zardari’s popularity has been slipping as a result of that stance, while his coalition partner, Sharif, piles up the political capital.

Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, has said repeatedly he wants the ex-general impeached and put on trial.

Zardari has now sharpened his tone regarding Musharraf, recently calling him a “relic of the past.”

Lawyers groups, the driving force behind a pro-democracy campaign that helped force Musharraf to give up his military role, have grown impatient with the new government’s failure to speedily reinstate Chaudhry and the other fired judges. They are threatening a “long march” on the capital beginning next week.

“I think he is in a hopeless situation,” said Rais, the political analyst. “If he goes, he wants to make a dignified exit, and not be pushed out. But it might be too late for that.”

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laura.king@latimes.com


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