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Pakistani crisis coming to a head

The political fate of the president hangs in the balance as a vote nears and the Supreme Court weighs legal challenges.

August 22, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — This country's long-running political crisis has entered a decisive phase, with developments in coming weeks likely to determine whether President Pervez Musharraf is able to hang on to power or is pushed aside.

Exiled opponents such as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto are vowing to return and reclaim a place on the political stage. The current parliament, whose rubber-stamp approval Musharraf wants for another term as president, is nearing the end of its tenure. An emboldened Supreme Court is weighing legal challenges to Musharraf's participation in politics while he retains his position as military chief.

And all the while, popular anger simmers. Celebrations last week of the 60th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule and the advent of statehood were muted not only by security fears but by a sense among many Pakistanis that a transition away from military rule is long overdue.

"This is supposed to be a time for national pride, but I don't see how things can continue as they are," said shopkeeper Iqbal Hussein, who allowed his three young sons out briefly into the sultry summer evening to set off a few celebratory firecrackers on Independence Day.

"The only question," he added, "is whether the change will be peaceful or violent."

The United States has key interests at stake in Pakistan, an ally in the U.S.- and NATO-led war in Afghanistan and a nuclear-armed regional power that is battling a small but virulent Islamic insurgency of its own.

The Bush administration has been discreetly prodding Musharraf, a secular general who seized power in a coup eight years ago, to accept a power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto. But his standing has eroded to such an extent that it is not clear whether such a deal would still be in Bhutto's interest.

Even some of the Pakistani leader's longtime allies have begun quietly weighing their options for a post-Musharraf era, analysts say.

"He's terribly unpopular, and anyone who stands with him now is going to be unpopular as well," said political analyst Shafqat Mehmood, a former senator. "Those around him can't speak about this aloud -- they would do so at their peril -- but in their hearts, they are wondering what happens to them later."

Pakistan's powerful military, whose economic and political influence extends far beyond the realm of national defense, continues to back its commander-in-chief. But there have been signs that Musharraf no longer enjoys the unquestioned authority of previous years.

This month, the general considered imposing emergency rule, a measure that would have given him wide-ranging powers to act against political opponents and the Pakistani media. Some analysts believe influential military figures counseled him against such a drastic measure, which probably would have provoked further unrest.

"There were indications that corps commanders were not very keen on the idea," said Urmila Venugopalan, editor of the Asia-Pacific section of Jane's Country Risk. Musharraf dropped the idea of an emergency declaration, but aides said it remained an option.

After a long spring and summer of discontent, matters are coming to a head, political and legal observers say. The clock is ticking down on the five-year term of the current parliament, which was elected in a 2002 vote widely believed to have been rigged in the general's favor.

The vote on another presidential term for Musharraf by an electoral college made up of national and regional lawmakers is to take place between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, the general's aides have said. The Supreme Court, presided over by Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the chief justice Musharraf tried to oust, has indicated it will entertain challenges to the vote being conducted by current lawmakers, rather than the new parliament to be elected by early next year.

The high court is also expected to be asked to determine whether Musharraf should be held, at last, to the constitutional ban on holding office while in uniform. Another legal provision that is expected to be invoked by the general's opponents states that anyone who leaves the military must wait two years before seeking public office.

Yet more legal challenges are expected to center on the fairness of the upcoming elections, which are to take place within 90 days of the parliament's dissolution Nov. 15. More than 20 million people eligible to vote are missing from the rolls, and the court has ordered officials to come up with an accurate and updated registry in the next month.

Musharraf's opponents, meanwhile, are treading a delicate path of their own. Bhutto's camp has been in talks with the general for more than a year about an agreement under which she would return to lead her party in the parliamentary campaign.

Bhutto, who served two terms as prime minister in the 1980s and '90s, wants Musharraf to agree to relinquish his military role and guarantee a free and fair vote. But she has warned that the window of opportunity for a deal could soon close.

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