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Having orchestrated many an electoral charade during the past eight years to keep himself in power, Musharraf now faces what may be the final test of his political career. The general-turned politician is probably the only man in Pakistani history (and maybe world history) who had himself "re-elected" president by a parliament whose term was expiring and that had elected him once before. He may be similarly unique in having been allowed to hold the dual offices of army chief and president by a special act of parliament.
But his real test is going to be on the 18th of February when Pakistanis are slated to go to the polls to elect the next parliament. There is a small chance that he may postpone the polls on one pretext or the other but it seems increasingly unlikely, now that US Secretary of State Condi Rice has given him a public reminder about the need to hold free and fair elections.
While Musharraf’s name will not be on the ballot box in any constituency on the 18th of February, the outcome of the elections will seal his fate. Three outcomes are possible of which two spell catastrophe for him and one spells a middling type of existence that is very different from the "unity of command" mode that he has gotten used to.
The first outcome is that the elections involve massive rigging, produce a huge win for the political party that supports Musharraf and are rejected by the people. Ever since the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) with which he was working assiduously to strike a deal, has distanced itself from him to the point of pointing an accusatory finger at him over her murder.
The PPP is widely viewed as being the country’s largest party and would not countenance a defeat easily. The party may be able to bring even bigger crowds onto the streets after her death than it was able to do while she was alive. The sympathy factor cannot be underestimated in Pakistani society. If a repetition of the December riots takes place, the army will be compelled to move.
General Kayani, the new army chief, is known to be a quiet man, one about whom not much has been written. For the ex-Spy Master, that is not a surprising quality. But he is also known to be a more thoughtful man than Musharraf.
When Musharraf suspended the Chief Justice in March, Kayani along with several other generals visited the judge to persuade him to resign. While the other generals spoke harshly to the judge, Kayani reportedly did not say much and privately is said to have opposed the demand for the judge’s removal, fearing it was a violation of the Constitution. While Musharraf has heaped praise after praise on him, including conferring the country’s highest award on him, Kayani may not prove to be the loyal student that Musharraf hopes dearly that he will turn out to be.
Faced with riots and further bad publicity for Pakistan on the global stage with all the near-term and long-term consequences that it brings, Kayani could well decide to act in the national interest than in Musharraf’s interest. He could do one of two things. One, he could declare Martial Law, depose Musharraf, and hold fresh elections. The entire nation would be grateful to him and welcome Martial Law provided elections are held and power transferred to the people’s representatives.
Or two, he could take an indirect approach, one that has not yet played out on the political stage in Pakistan. The general could send a behind-the-scenes signal to the current Supreme Court judges to annul Musharraf’s presidential election or restore the previous justices who were removed by Musharraf. Either action would seal Musharraf’s fate. In the second option, Kayani would keep the army out of politics and preserve its professional integrity. It has a higher probability of occurrence because of that reason.
The second outcome of the 18th of February is that the elections turn out to be free and fair and his opponents emerge with an absolute majority. The sentiment in the new parliament will be very strongly anti-Musharraf and it is entirely possible that a bill will be brought to a vote calling for his impeachment from the presidency.
Even Musharraf has admitted that possibility in an interview with the Strait Times of Singapore. When asked what he would do if such an eventuality comes to pass, a clearly rattled Musharraf said he would resign if the passage of the bill was imminent. He said he has been waiting to get back to the golf course and tennis court for quite some time and the resignation would allow him to do that.
What is notable that he has referred to the possibility of resigning several times during the past seven months while having never mentioned it in his first seven years. The dark thought has now entered his mind and will not leave. But this is the first time that he has not invoked the national interest to justify staying in office and not resigning. This is more than a subtle change in diction or tone. It is an embracement of reality. The former general is increasingly sounding like a soldier who has fought his last battle. He is worn out, tired and dejected.
The third outcome on the 18th of February is that the elections are indeed free and fair and widely accepted as being so but unlike the second outcome, they yield a hung parliament where his opponents do not have a majority. This will give him a much needed reprieve. He will probably be able to cobble together a coalition government that would keep him in power for a while longer. But even this outcome will deny him longevity. He is unlikely to stay in power for a full five-year term.
Superficially, Musharraf is not ready to sign his letter of resignation. Witness his recent European sojourn. What are we to make of it? Partly, it is designed to send a signal to the world that he is still in charge, that he has nothing to fear by leaving the country even though he is no longer wearing his beloved second-skin, the army uniform. Partly it is designed to prove to the West that he is still the best bet for keeping the terrorists at bay.
He berated the Europeans for pressing Pakistan on the issue of democracy and human rights, saying it had taken Europe centuries to get there. He reminded them that Pakistan was still a tribal society and needed a strong ruler at the top to keep it from becoming unglued. He talked about having restored freedom of the press and liberated women from decades of subjugation.
But what cannot have been lost on Musharraf is the strongly-worded statement that was issued on the eve of his European journey by a hundred retired flag officers from all three services that called upon him to resign. The former generals, air marshals and admirals spoke with a single voice when they said that he had become an impediment to the restoration of democracy and by using the army to keep him in power, he had brought the armed forced into disrepute. This must have hurt him since it cannot just be reflecting the views of the hundred who signed the letter. Uniformed officers must be talking along those lines in army barracks from Peshawar to Karachi, from Rawalpindi to Quetta, from Kharian to Lahore.
Against the backdrop of all these scenarios and outcomes, Musharraf’s political future is dim, his prospects for political recovery slim. Any other man in his position would take the high road and resign now, without any pre-conditions. He would form a nationally representative government with the sole objective of holding free and fair elections and leave the country. The Hoover Institution at Stanford would be pleased to have him join Donald Rumsfeld and other relics of the Bush Imperium as a fellow.
The longer Musharraf hangs on to power, the weaker are his chances of making a graceful exit. Up to now, the US has stood with him. It won’t forever. All he needs to do is recall the manner in which the US abandoned its long-standing friend, the Shah of Iran, of how the Shah spent his last years in Mexico, stricken with cancer, of how his native land refused to accept his body and of how he came to be buried in a dusty mosque deep in the heart of old Cairo.
AHMAD FARUQUI has authored Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, available from Ashgate Publishing. He can be reached at: Faruqui@pacbell.net.