As Musharraf Tours Europe, Position at Home Grows More Uncertain
The New York Times
By Jane Perlez

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf is touring European capitals and plans to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday in a bid to show that he remains in charge of his troubled country, where his popular support has never been at such a low ebb.

On the tour, his first major trip abroad since stepping down as army chief last month, Mr. Musharraf intends to show his resolve in fighting terrorism and to talk up investment opportunities, his aides said.

But his pitch, after the assassination of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, will be made in the shadow of a rapidly escalating jihadist insurgency, an economy suffering from sudden power and wheat shortages, and worries that elections, delayed to Feb. 18, will not be free and fair.

The pillars of Mr. Musharraf’s strength as a ruler over the past eight years — national stability and security, with an army capable of withstanding the insurgency, and a flourishing economy — are being severely challenged, his supporters and critics say. Suicide bombers have struck three of Pakistan’s major cities — Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar — killing dozens of people in the past 10 days.

In a public opinion poll by Gallup Pakistan this month, 68 percent of some 1,300 respondents who were asked in random, face-to-face interviews whether Mr. Musharraf should resign or stay said they thought he should go.

The results mirrored an even larger opinion survey by the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is affiliated with the Republican Party and promotes democracy abroad. That survey was published in December, before Ms. Bhutto’s assassination and the delay of the elections.

Politicians who have supported Mr. Musharraf say his popularity among all classes of Pakistanis has plummeted to its lowest point yet, damaged by a series of missteps starting nearly a year ago when he tried to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

They said he was hurt further by his imposition of six weeks of emergency rule late in the year, and by the arrests of thousands of critics, most of them now freed.

Mr. Musharraf has ruled the country since he took power in a bloodless coup late in 1999, retaining his post as military chief while taking on the role of president. Over time, the dual roles stirred popular and judicial resistance, and opponents demanded he surrender his military post.

In December, Mr. Musharraf stepped down as leader of the army and two days later was sworn in for a new five-year presidential term, having been re-elected by national and provincial assemblies in October.

Support for Mr. Musharraf within the army, which is considered Pakistan’s most important institution and is under growing pressure from the insurgency, was hard to gauge accurately, said two Western diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The successor Mr. Musharraf has chosen to lead the army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is not expected to abandon him in the short term, they said.

They noted that General Kayani took steps last week to distance the military from politics by issuing a directive that army officers were no longer permitted to contact politicians. He has also been reported to be likely to recall army officers who had been posted to top slots in government departments when Mr. Musharraf was in charge of the military.

Over all, Mr. Musharraf faces opposition led by the elite of society — educated doctors, engineers, lawyers — and that kind of challenge is different from the traditional opposition in Pakistan, which comes from the streets, said Ijaz Shafi Gilani, chairman of Gallup Pakistan, in an interview on Friday.

“These are people who have benefited economically from the Musharraf regime, but what makes them work toward his departure is the feeling of a sense of national humiliation,” he said.

Major business leaders, however, still support Mr. Musharraf, a result of the strong economic growth that has benefited them, if not the average Pakistani, said Wamiq Zuberi, chief editor of The Business Recorder, a daily newspaper, and chairman of an independent television station, Aaj TV. But whether the business support will last, he said, is uncertain.

“By and large big business has not turned against him, but they’re quite perturbed by the way things are going,” he said. “Definitely nobody in the country can be satisfied with the law-and-order situation and the suicide bombings.”

As the political and security uncertainties have unfolded, shortages of electricity, gas and wheat have compounded the anxieties. After the government, relying on what proved to be underestimates of domestic consumption, decided to export wheat last year, its price soared. Lines for flour at high prices have been the norm in the last few weeks.

Similarly, the Musharraf government underestimated sharp increases in energy consumption, while power plant construction has been slower than expected. One result has been nightly blackouts in cities and villages.

Analysts contend that Ms. Bhutto’s assassination has caused widespread resentment of Mr. Musharraf, and that many Pakistanis blame the government for her death.

Increasingly, politicians say that Mr. Musharraf’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League has become so unpopular that candidates who formerly ran on that ticket are jumping ship.

One such candidate who has shifted to Ms. Bhutto’s party, Firdaus Ashiq Awan, 35, said she felt let down by the president’s record.

“I joined him because he was going to introduce a seven-point reform agenda, and make the political people accountable to the Constitution,” said Dr. Awan, a physician who is running in the province of Punjab against a more seasoned candidate in Mr. Musharraf’s party. “But instead of being a reformer he has bulldozed everything.” In a measure of the sea change in attitudes toward Mr. Musharraf, for the first time on Sunday, a major Pakistani newspaper suggested in an editorial that it was time for a presidential exit.

The editorial in The Daily Times, written under a code of conduct that forbids direct criticism of Mr. Musharraf, appeared two days after Mr. Musharraf gave a major interview to the editors of Pakistan’s leading newspapers.

The editorial said, “Without being polemical about the right and wrong of presidential actions — or blunders, as some would say — the sheer burden of incumbency points to a transition away from him, even at the risk of getting the war on terrorism wrong.”

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