Pakistan: Musharraf’s Promises

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf seemed triumphant. Wearing a traditional black tunic, he took the oath of office, which was administered Thursday by his recently handpicked chief justice, for a second five-year term as president. It was a moment he had been maneuvering to achieve for months. To get there he had to resort to extra-constitutional means, suspending the Constitution and unexpectedly imposing a state of emergency on Nov. 3. The draconian decree immediately achieved its aim: the removal of Supreme Court justices, particularly the feisty chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, who seemed poised to rule that his controversial indirect re-election as president last October was unconstitutional.

In his inaugural address as a civilian president, Musharraf claimed he had thwarted a "conspiracy" of the ousted justices, and he called his re-election a "milestone" in the country's transformation to democracy. He also welcomed back the two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who have returned from exile, saying he hoped they would join him in building a "conciliatory, civilized, democratic environment" in Pakistan. Lately, Musharraf has eased up on the emergency somewhat. While at least five Supreme Court justices remain under house arrest, as do several activist lawyers, nearly all of the some 6,000 judges, lawyers, opposition politicians, political and human-rights activists who had been summarily swept up under the ordinance have been released. Indeed, Musharraf seems to be feeling so confident that in a 20-minute speech broadcast nationally Thursday night, he announced that since he had put the country back "on the path to democracy" and had "broken the back" of terrorists in recent fighting, he would lift emergency rule Dec. 16, three short weeks before the Jan. 8 general election.

But the general paid a high price for his victory. The day before his inauguration, he kept his promise to his domestic critics and international backers by resigning from the Army after 46 years in uniform and leaving his powerful position as Army chief of staff after nine years. In a spit-and-polish ceremony at Army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the bemedaled Musharraf, nearly in tears, handed the gold-tipped baton symbolizing command to his handpicked successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, a loyal general whom he has known for 20 years. To many observers, Musharraf's resignation from the military was more of a watershed than his re-election as president. He emerged from the handover ceremony a politically weakened figure. "Since he's no longer commanding the Army, it will not be possible for him to continue playing the dominating role he's used to," says Najam Sethi, editor of the Lahore-based Daily Times. "Musharraf is now totally out of the Army," adds one Western military official in Islamabad who agrees that the president's influence inside the military will be greatly diminished. "He is not one of them anymore."

That's significant for the 64-year-old former general whose political power flowed almost exclusively from the military, which has ruled Pakistan directly for half of its 60 years of independence from Britain. "The Army that he has relied on heavily to sustain him in the past will no longer be at his disposal," say political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. "And outside the ranks, his political support has declined drastically." Musharraf's personal war with the Supreme Court, and his unpopular emergency decree have stripped him of most of his popularity. Now he and his political allies, who have had a near monopoly on political power for the past eight years since Musharraf overthrew Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999, are facing a head-on challenge from both former prime ministers. To rule and survive, Musharraf must now learn to rely almost completely on his political skills, as he can no longer use the military as a powerful political tool.

Though loyal to Musharraf, Kiyani, 55, a no-nonsense professional soldier who most recently headed the military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), is believed to have his own vision for Pakistan's military, the country's most disciplined and powerful institution. "He sees the Army through his own prism," says retired Pakistani Army Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. Western military attachés in Islamabad are delighted that Kiyani is finally in command. "He's the guy for the job," says one enthusiastic Western military official. "He's a polished military man with a depth of understanding from the intelligence side." Indeed, Kiyani seems to combine the ingredients necessary to pursue the country's floundering war against armed Islamic extremism. Kiyani's full-time focus, the Western military attachés say, will be on retooling the Army for that fight. Playing politics, which consumed most of Musharraf's time, will no longer be an option for the military. "He does not want the military to be distracted by political issues," says the Western military official. "He wants to get it out of politics in every way."

That's good news for the fight against extremism but perhaps not for Musharraf's political future. In the past, Musharraf relied on the military not only to seize power but also to keep him there. Just having the 600,000-man armed forces at his command was clout enough to keep him in power. But Musharraf also benefited from the ISI and the other military and civilian intelligence agencies that stage-managed his embarrassing presidential referendum in early 2002--in which he won more than 95 percent of the vote--and manipulated the 2002 general elections that foreign observers called "seriously flawed." The chain-smoking, golf-playing Kiyani doesn't seem to be a man who wants the Army influencing politics, and certainly not the upcoming election. "I think Kiyani will allow the political process to take shape naturally," says Masood. "The Army will remain neutral, not play political favorites, and give more space to politicians."

On a personal level, though, Musharraf, appears to feel he is riding high. He has won praise from world leaders, including U.S. President George Bush, and even from Bhutto and Sharif for relinquishing his Army command. Now the Pakistani leader has to translate this new beginning of sorts into holding a credible election next January, an accomplishment that could augment his political legacy. First, he will have to convince Bhutto and Sharif that campaigning will be held on a level playing field and that the voting itself will be free and fair. Thursday's pledge to lift the emergency may go part way toward allaying these concerns, though that only leaves three weeks for campaigning. And even if the clampdown is lifted, strict government security regulations will probably remain in place making it almost impossible for parties to hold campaign rallies and processions, traditional Pakistani electoral practices. In addition, Musharraf will not meet Sharif's demand to restore the cashiered justices.

Nonetheless, if Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party do run, then Sharif would almost certainly be obliged to follow or else risk being cast back out into the political cold. One possibility the president has to avoid at all cost is a Bhutto-Sharif coalition against him, either boycotting the vote or running in coordination against Musharraf's political allies. "If Benazir and Nawaz get together," says Sethi, "then I fear he [Musharraf] won't survive." But that tandem is unlikely, as both former prime ministers are said to loathe each other more than they dislike Musharraf.

Musharraf does face a serious trust deficit. "I don't think he has it in him to allow a free and fair election," says Masood. "He's never presided over a fair election in the past." That judgment may be too harsh. But even if the vote is credible, the president will have a tough time governing afterward. His word will not longer be law. A new prime minister will doubtlessly want to exercise his or her newfound powers. Kiyani will also be a force to be reckoned with and is unlikely to take dictation from the president. As a result, Musharraf will finally have to learn the difficult art of negotiation and accommodation.
For the West, the best electoral outcome would be Bhutto as prime minister working with Musharraf as president. That scenario would present a real test for Musharraf. "She will demand effective power sharing," says Sethi. "She's not going to settle for crumbs." "Both are pragmatic and realistic people but will want to extract as much power as they can from the other," he adds. Clearly, such a test of wills will result in tension at the top. But such a political struggle, though messy, will be part of the democratic process. Happily for most Pakistanis, the one-man show will finally be over.