As he enters a crucial period, which could well decide the future of his country, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has few viable options left. Not only are his political opponents stronger than at any time in the past few years, but his bungling of a judicial crisis — Musharraf suspended a chief justice last March for alleged misconduct — turned the country’s courts against him, making it even harder for the president to get to another term. Musharraf has crafted a career out of extricating himself from tight spots. Could he finally be so boxed in that there is no escape?
Here’s a look at the possible paths ahead:
Go It Alone at the Ballot Box
Unlikely to succeed, at least if the elections are anything approaching free and fair. Musharraf faces not only the legal hassles of securing his nomination, but also his massive unpopularity.
The constitution forbids anyone from simultaneously holding the positions of president and army chief, but Musharraf won a one-time pass from this law in 2002. That amnesty runs out in November and getting it renewed will not be easy: the Supreme Court then was not at odds with the president as it is now.
Even if Musharraf finds a way around that problem, he would likely struggle in a countrywide vote. Many Pakistanis see their President as an American puppet, a perception exacerbated by the fact that he has failed miserably in convincing Pakistanis that terrorism threatens them just as much as it does Americans. According to a public opinion survey by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. government–backed group that promotes democracy, 59% of Pakistanis think their country is headed in the wrong direction, up from 38% in June 2006, while 63% of people believe Musharraf should resign.
Declare Martial Law
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly talked Musharraf out of declaring martial law two weeks ago. But government insiders say it remains a possibility, despite the fact that such a move would alienate Musharraf from his U.S. backers and unite his moderate and extremist opponents against him. One factor he might have to consider if he does take such a drastic step: the views of his fellow servicemen, many of whom seem to be coming to the conclusion that, for their own sake, an elected civilian government is preferable to the current regime.
Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a former petroleum minister and close adviser to Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf overthrew in 1999, tells TIME that discontent within the army is growing. Khan comes from a family of military men — his grandfather was in the army, his father was a brigadier general, his brother was a lieutenant general and he has cousins and nephews who are still serving — who tell him, he says, of “the deep simmering dissatisfaction over how the army is being used for political means.” Soldiers have been told not to wear their uniforms on the street, and many young soldiers are declining home leave because they are sick of being insulted, he says. “Everyone is aware of the backlash against the army — and blames Musharraf,” Khan says. The president would need a sure grip on his army before doing anything drastic.
Go to the Polls in Coalition with Benazir Bhutto
As unlikely as it might have seemed a few months back, this is now Musharraf’s best shot. There are dangers in this strategy, not least the role of the Supreme Court, which could still stop Musharraf running again or hinder Bhutto’s return from self-imposed exile, or both. There’s also the fact that Bhutto’s popularity has taken a hit since talk of a tie-up with Musharraf broke, while last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the exiled Nawaz Sharif could return to Pakistan to oppose Musharraf’s bid for another term.
But a Pakistani official told newspapers Monday that Musharraf has sent representatives to London this week to discuss a power-sharing pact with Bhutto. A decision is expected within days. Washington is encouraging such a deal in the hope that together Musharraf and Bhutto can capture Pakistan’s moderate middle and help save the country from extremists. This reasoning overlooks the fact that Musharraf has helped fuel many of the problems that his country now faces — but the sense of urgency is almost palpable. When a group of opposition politicians, human rights activists and journalists met in Islamabad on the last Friday in July, they planned to discuss the country’s future and the need for elections and reform, according to the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, I.A. Rehman, who had traveled to the capital from Lahore for the meeting. But as the group sat down to begin the afternoon session they could hear the cries of rioters clashing with police outside the controversial Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, less than a mile away.
Later, a massive explosion from a suspected suicide bomber in a nearby market shook the windows and doors of the meeting room. “We kind of looked at each other and realized we don’t have time for an extended discussion,” said Rehman, a few days after the meeting. “We don’t have that luxury. We need change now or the drift will become more and more dangerous.”