ISLAMABAD, Aug 1 (Reuters) — When he was just a boy and his father was posted as a diplomat in Ankara during the 1950’s, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf saw the elegant officers of Turkey’s secular army and decided he wanted to be a soldier too.
Unfortunately for U.S. ally General Musharraf, with elections looming and weakened to a point where he can no longer hope to hold power alone, he needs a deal with a woman who won’t let him keep his uniform — ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
After a not-so-secret rendezvous in Abu Dhabi last week, she has kept Musharraf dangling, saying “no deal” to get him re-elected president for a second term, unless he quits the army.
It may be the last card he has to play, but Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, should be reconciled to giving up his post as army chief and a uniform he calls his “second skin”.
The question is when — December or before.
“He has to cave on the uniform,” said Husain Haqqani, former adviser to Pakistani leaders, including Bhutto, and now director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations.
Otherwise, the only way Musharraf can keep his army job is by declaring an emergency or martial law, which he says he won’t do despite growing fears of instability due to a suicide bomb campaign by Islamist militants in July.
U.S. pressure to act against al Qaeda nests in the Waziristan tribal region, and legislation tying future U.S. aid to results against the militants could further undermine Musharraf.
Western nations with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq will be unnerved by prospects of mounting instability in a nuclear-armed state, chosen as headquarters for al Qaeda’s fugitive leaders.
A Musharraf-Bhutto combination seems the best option, despite doubts about how long they could work together, diplomats say.
At least Bhutto shares Musharraf’s desire for Pakistan to become a progressive society, unlike some of the religious conservatives he has depended on for support up to now.
She could generate the popular backing Musharraf needs to confront the militant menace among a public more worried by rising prices, unemployment and poverty, according to a recent survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI).
For Bhutto there’s the chance of a triumphant return from self-exile, exoneration from a raft of corruption charges, and a strong possibility of becoming prime minister for a third time.
But she has to soothe disquiet in her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) over doing deals to save a military president.
An IRI survey completed on July 3 showed Musharraf’s approval rating had dropped 20 points to 34 percent.
And that was before criticism over the death toll in an army attack on a militant Islamabad mosque, rising insecurity, and the Supreme Court’s momentous decision on July 20 to reinstate the chief justice whom Musharraf had spent months trying to sack.
Analyst Haqqani believes there was never a chance of a deal in Abu Dhabi. It would have been political poison for Bhutto.
“Musharraf is at such a low point among civil society, that Bhutto will have been told by her party that you give Musharraf a way out and people won’t vote for you,” he said.
SLIPS BETWEEN CUP AND LIP
Instead, Bhutto is playing hardball, taking Musharraf to task over the need for an independent Election Commission, millions of voters missing from the electoral register, and the choice of an interim prime minister.
She could string him along, then drop him at the last moment.
The other opposition block, led by Nawaz Sharif, the exiled prime minister Musharraf ousted, thinks the best way to force the army out of politics is refusing to negotiate at all.
For Musharraf time is running out, and the danger of slip-ups is great, even if a deal is sealed.
He wants to be re-elected between mid-September and mid-October, by assemblies before their dissolution in November.
He commands the simple majority needed, but constitutional challenges are likely to be mounted in the Supreme Court against being re-elected in uniform by the same assemblies.
In the court’s current mood, there is a risk it could rule against Musharraf as it did over the chief justice, if it goes by the spirit of the constitution as well as the text.
Musharraf could change the constitution, but needs Bhutto’s help to obtain a required two-thirds majority.
Instead, Bhutto wants him to seek re-election after parliamentary polls due in December or January, by which time he will be constitutionally obliged to have quit the army.
Under that scenario he would again need her help to change the constitution, due to a bar on state servants standing for president less than two years after quitting their post.
She, meantime, requires a constitutional bar removed on becoming prime minister for a third time.
Given the mutual distrust, both need guarantors for any deal, and several analysts believe the United States and Saudi Arabia may have behind-the-scenes roles to play.
If the two leaders’ alliance is perceived as merely a deal to carve up power, a nation seeking change after eight years of military-civilian rule could feel short-changed.
Analysts believe the greatest need is for elections in which political parties abide by rules, all exiled leaders are allowed back, and the intelligence agencies refrain from rigging.
“Don’t try to engineer something because you think it will provide a remedy to extremism,” said Nasim Zehra, a respected independent political analyst. “The real remedy is to let there be fair play, and let it be seen to be fair play.”Top