Musharraf must quit both politics and the army

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Roll on that villa on the Bosporus. Even though a majority of his countrymen would doubtless prefer him to buy a one-way ticket to retirement in Turkey, whose modern founder he so admires, Pervez Musharraf will on Thursday sign up for a new five-year term as president of Pakistan. This time, however, he will no longer wear a dual hat as chief of army staff. His “doffing” of the uniform, in belated fulfilment of a pledge he has defaulted on repeatedly since 2003, may superficially look consistent with his promise of “real democracy” for a country that has been ruled by the military for more than half its 60-year history. It is, sadly, nothing of the sort.

A man who in his own mind and myth has come to equate his political survival with that of Pakistan itself has secured a new term thanks only to a brutal assault on judicial independence. If the US were serious about promoting democracy in Pakistan – a process it mistakenly subordinates to its need for quick wins in the global “war on terror” – it would recoil at the fact that, beyond a clique of rent-seekers hanging around the barracks, there is no popular constituency for an extension of Mr Musharraf’s presidency. The process by which the former commando chief has procured a new mandate has been a travesty of even the most dimly understood democratic principles.

It is to the credit of the UK and other Commonwealth members that they have not abandoned the lawyers leading Pakistan’s faltering struggle for democracy. These governments, however, do not matter. The country that counts most, the US, has ignored the fact that Mr Musharraf has stolen victory in a presidential election he was not eligible to fight and then sacked the Supreme Court judges who were poised to disallow his candidacy. While the US has pushed for the lifting of the state of emergency and for his retirement from the military, its decision not to insist on the restoration of the judiciary has allowed Mr Musharraf to cling to power in a way that fatally undermines the rule of law.

Mr Musharraf’s position, however, is now weaker than ever. As a civilian president, he will be dependent on the loyalty of the man he has appointed to succeed him as army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, for whom he may soon become a liability. Although he will retain his team of military aides and continue to chair the National Security Council, a body he created that straddles the military and civilian spheres, Mr Musharraf will rapidly find that loyalty is to the uniform, not to the man. Under the constitution – suspended by the state of emergency declared on November 3 – his only real power as president will derive from his ability to dissolve parliament.

Pakistan is now poised for a destabilising period of cohabitation between Mr Musharraf and the two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, he has recently allowed back into the country. They are – at least for now – in confrontational mode. Ms Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s party commands about 35 per cent of the popular vote, has pledged to restore the judiciary should it come to power after the January 8 elections. Mr Sharif, leader of a faction of the more conservative Pakistan Muslim League, has been even more forthright, on Monday describing the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry, sacked twice as chief justice in the past eight months, as “the most important thing” on his agenda.

It is questionable whether Ms Bhutto would follow through on her commitment to restore Mr Chaudhry and other independent justices to their old jobs. But any sign that she were planning such a move would be the final straw for the shaky US-backed power-sharing arrangement between the PPP leader and Mr Musharraf. Things have not yet reached that stage. Ms Bhutto knows that a liberated court would want to throw out Mr Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance, a decree waiving corruption charges against politicians, which principally benefited her. Once in power, though, she may feel it is worth taking that risk to rid herself of a meddlesome general.

Accustomed to absolute power, Mr Musharraf will be unable to cohabit with Ms Bhutto or Mr Sharif for long before he loses patience. There are signs that the military is already losing its limited enthusiasm for a third Bhutto administration; while dreadful personal relations between Mr Sharif and Mr Musharraf have improved little since the general’s 1999 coup. The president may hope he can cobble together a supportive majority in parliament without the help of Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif. But that may well require vote-rigging on a scale sufficient to trigger a massive new wave of protests and undermine further his ability to command public support for the war on terror.

By clinging to the presidency, Mr Musharraf has lost his best chance of going out if not in a blaze of glory, then at least as the man who moved Pakistan furthest towards peace with India and oversaw one of the fastest periods of economic growth, however flawed, in the country’s history. To salvage what remains of his legacy, Mr Musharraf should as soon as possible let the chairman of the senate take over as an interim president and withdraw from politics. The January elections will most likely result in a centre-left or a centre-right government: there is little frightening in that. It will certainly be less destabilising for Pakistan and less worrying for the rest of the world than five more years under Mr Musharraf.

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