INVITING unhappy comparisons with Mahatma Gandhi and Mao Zedong, Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was foiled in a plan to lead a “long march” on November 13th. The march—in fact, a 270km (170-mile) drive from Lahore to Islamabad—had been called to protest against the imposition of martial law by General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, on November 3rd. Hours before it was to start, Miss Bhutto was put under house arrest for a week.
A few brave PPP supporters hit the road. In holding a political gathering, they defied the rules of General Musharraf’s coup. Inaccurately, he has described this as constituting a state of emergency. In fact, the general has done away with the constitution altogether. He has also arrested at least 2,500 political activists, human-rights workers and lawyers. Private television news channels have been taken off the air; critics of the president and army now face three-year prison terms.
As they drove to Islamabad, the PPP’s protesters also faced a threat of terrorism; twin suicide-blasts had devastated Miss Bhutto’s return to Pakistan from exile last month, killing 150 of her supporters in Karachi. Yet all attention remained fixed on the Lahori townhouse—newly designated as a “sub-jail”—where Miss Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister, had been detained.
She proceeded to announce the end of year-long negotiations with General Musharraf to share power after a general election due in January: “There are no circumstances in which I could see myself serving with President Musharraf.” Rather, she said, the general must quit. Miss Bhutto then telephoned other opposition leaders, including several in exile, detention or hiding, to offer her party as an ally against him. Another former prime minister, her erstwhile rival, Nawaz Sharif, exiled leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), accepted the offer.
On the face of it, this was a dramatic turnaround by Miss Bhutto. She had returned from exile after the general granted her an amnesty from corruption charges relating to her time in power. For her part, she ordered the PPP not to quit Parliament, like every other opposition party, when General Musharraf got himself re-elected president by its members last month. Even after the general launched his coup, it was at first hard to know whose side Miss Bhutto was on. While thousands of members of other parties were arrested, the PPP’s were left at large.
But the general has not seemed minded to give away his powers. His attorney general said he could step down as army chief before December 1st but that might not matter much. General Musharraf staged his coup when the Supreme Court’s judges seemed about to declare his presidential re-election illegal because he was a serving soldier at the time. He has since sacked 12 of its judges and appointed biddable alternatives. He has also refused to consider lifting emergency laws—perhaps until after the election is held. A poll held in those conditions would not be remotely fair.
It would be much like the last Pakistani election, in 2002, which took place under emergency laws imposed by General Musharraf after his 1999 coup, and was rigged on behalf of his principal supporter, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), or PML-Q. Unable to make a majority nonetheless, the general’s agents allegedly bought one, bribing and cajoling members of other parties to cross the floor to the “king’s party”, as the PML-Q is called.
The general may hope to succeed with these tactics again, but it will be harder. In 2002, he was a fairly popular, efficient leader. This year, in response to food-price inflation and his own blundering efforts to quash the judiciary and media, his popularity has collapsed. According to polling by the International Republican Institute—sampled before the coup—83% of Pakistanis were against the state of emergency that was then rumoured.
A large majority also wanted the general to quit. They may be disappointed awhile. Asked this week when he would step down, General Musharraf replied: “When there is no turmoil in Pakistan.”