The autumn of the patriarch

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 26/11/07):

General Pervez Musharraf’s plan to retain power as Pakistan’s civilian president is still intact, despite weeks of jaw-dropping blunders. But insiders say he will not last long, once a new government is elected and his army ties fade. They predict the general’s final posting, following a trail into exile blazed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, will be duke of Knightsbridge or king of Dubai.

Musharraf’s decision to call an election on January 8, his imminent resignation as army chief, his acquiescence in Sharif’s weekend return, and gradual release of political prisoners have all helped put his pre-crisis plan back on track. Officials say he is now under intense American pressure to take the last, crucial step and lift the state of emergency, as demanded by US special envoy John Negroponte last week.

Only an end to the emergency can give the coming elections necessary credibility (although few expect them to be entirely free from manipulation), they say. And only this will quell mounting alarm in Washington about the lack of political alternatives to Musharraf and semi-hysterical questions about who “lost” nuclear-armed Muslim Pakistan.

Pakistani officials suggest a private understanding that the emergency will end soon explains why President George Bush spoke out so strongly in Musharraf’s support after Negroponte departed. To derisive guffaws from Democrats, Bush said the general “truly is somebody who believes in democracy” and who “hasn’t crossed the line”. But so far Bush is sticking to his hired gun.

Despite personal hostility to Musharraf and long lists of preconditions, both Bhutto and Sharif are preparing to participate in the polls. Bhutto said on Sunday her Pakistan People’s party (PPP) would take part “under protest” because “we don’t want to leave the field open for our rivals”. But other calculations are also in play.

The Bhutto-Musharraf relationship has deteriorated sharply since her return to Karachi last month. Yet despite everything, the pre-crisis mutual understanding brokered by the US is still salvageable. “Musharraf and Bhutto detest each other. They both think of themselves as saviours. Neither is good at sharing power,” a senior official said.

“But this marriage was not made in heaven. It was made in Washington. Benazir does whatever the Americans tell her.” Both leaders were pro-American and relatively secular and liberal in outlook, unlike the conservative Sharif with his strong ties to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s religious parties. And again unlike Bhutto, Sharif is adamant he will not work with Musharraf, who he has never forgiven for deposing him in the 1999 coup.

The most likely, immediate outcome was a coalition government led by Bhutto as prime minister, the official said, even though the chances of her working successfully with him as civilian president were poor in the longer term. “Benazir will make a bid for greater power as PM. The dynamic will be with her. So there’s going to be a big struggle.”

In prospect now is a return to Pakistan’s so-called “troika politics” of the 1990s, when president, prime minister and military fought for the political upper hand, usually in alliances of two-against-one. This ongoing institutionalised power struggle, guaranteeing instability and strife, was also cast as a battle between the “three A’s” – “America, the army, and Allah,” not necessarily in that order.

Musharraf’s aim had been to lead Pakistan out of this self-destructive cycle, the senior official said:

“In the first phase, from the coup until 2002, he accumulated power. That was when he called himself ‘chief executive’. In the second phase, from 2002 until this year, he held managed elections and had a hand-picked PM. The third phase is to hand over and move to a civilian presidency.

This is the most troublesome phase. The problem is, he’s paranoid now. He thinks everybody is out to get him – and he’s right.”

Musharraf’s legacy in foreign affairs, notably in improved relations with India, and in growing the economy was not inconsiderable, a former supporter said. The main opposition leaders were deeply flawed while it was true to say that a highly politicised judiciary had sparked the current crisis.

But in his recent actions, in the opinion of Pakistan’s “civil society”, Musharraf had simply gone too far, the source said. However hard he now fought to hang on to the presidency, the probability was that, sooner rather than later, it would be prised from his grasp.

“His preference will be to hold on to power, to run things himself, as long as he can. That’s partly because he fears the consequences of letting go. But he will never be forgiven for the last few weeks.”