ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The months of protests that have weakened Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf are giving fresh life to a varied cast looking to replace him.
As three months of demonstrations hobble Musharraf, two former prime ministers are plotting returns from exile. An ex-cricket star has revived his political career by standing up to the military and to pro-Musharraf militants. A judge deposed by Musharraf has emerged — along with an aide — as a moral voice by challenging the military strongman.
Musharraf, the pro-U.S. president and army chief who has ruled for eight years, is in trouble. The 160 million people of his troubled country are bracing for what’s next.
Musharraf’s potential challengers
The Bush administration portrays Musharraf as a staunch ally in anti-terrorism efforts and a bulwark against Islamic extremism in a nuclear-armed country. Rivals say the Pakistani leader has strengthened militants by shackling mainstream political parties. They say a directly elected civilian government would better combat extremism.
“Moderate forces are not being allowed to play their proper role. The political system Gen. Musharraf put in place has utterly failed to curb religious extremists or benefit the people,” says former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Musharraf’s regime “built up the religious parties to frighten the West.”
Religious militants are unlikely to take charge, many analysts agree.
“Musharraf keeps telling the United States that if he stepped aside, the terrorists would capture power in Pakistan,” says Roedad Khan, author of Pakistan: A Dream Gone Sour, a critical account of the country’s leadership since independence in 1947. “It’s a bogey(man). … The religious groups have no chance of capturing political power at the ballot box.”
The religious parties fared poorly in a spring poll by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, a non-partisan group that promotes democracy. It found:
- Just 8.4% of Pakistani adults favored religious parties.
- Secular democratic parties got 38.9% backing.
- A pro-Musharraf coalition had 14.4%.
Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup, first claiming the title of chief executive, later appointing himself president. In 2002, he won 98% support in a controversial up-or-down referendum boycotted by rivals. Since then, he has reneged on a promise to give up his role as army chief in return for a constitutional amendment legalizing the coup that brought him to power.
Musharraf wants the Parliament to vote him another five-year term as president before a new parliament is elected this fall. Opponents have demanded that the new parliament decide.
The most widely known challengers to Musharraf are the leaders of country’s mainstream parties: Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif, who heads a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League. Each served two terms as prime minister in the ’90s.
“Again and again, the same faces,” says a disgusted Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a Muslim cleric at the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad.
Sharif and Bhutto say they will return from exile this year. Bhutto, who lives in London and Dubai, faces corruption charges back home. Sharif, now lives in London. His administration was criticized for corruption and autocratic rule.
In an interview last week, Sharif vowed to return even if it means going to jail. “This doesn’t scare me. I’ve seen all that,” said Sharif, who spent 14 months in prison after he was overthrown by Musharraf.
Bhutto has been negotiating with Musharraf’s government over the terms of her return and “a peaceful transition to democracy.” She declines to discuss details.
Bhutto’s talks with the Musharraf government have stalled since militants from a group aligned with the general, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), attacked demonstrators in Karachi on May 12, leaving more than 40 dead. Police watched but did not intervene. Musharraf refuses to investigate.
“There’s a lot of public anger at the deaths and the government’s refusal to acknowledge that what happened was wrong,” Bhutto says.
The political tumult began March 9 when Musharraf dismissed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry for unspecified misconduct. Since then, a series of nationwide rallies has introduced new faces and energized veteran politicians.
“Pakistan is ready for a different kind of politics,” Roedad Khan says. “The traditional political leaders — I won’t be surprised if people throw them out.”
The anti-Musharraf groundswell has revived the political fortunes of Imran Khan, a former cricket star. In recent months, Khan has become one of the most vocal opponents of Musharraf’s military rule. He also has won notice for attempting to persuade Britain to prosecute MQM’s leader, living in London, for the May 12 killings.
“Nobody dared challenged MQM,” says Hussain Ahmad Piracha, political scientist at International Islamic University. “Imran Khan had the courage.”
Also emerging: Chaudhry, and his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan. Chaudhry says he refused to submit to pressure by Musharraf to resign. Since his release from a brief detention, the judge and Ahsan have barnstormed the country, drawing crowds of tens of thousands.
The ousted chief justice “has fired the imagination of the people. They wanted to kiss is hand. And because they couldn’t, they kissed his car,” Roedad Khan says.
Khan also calls lawyer-chauffeur Ahsan “a rising star.”
Since independence, Pakistan has swung between civilian and military leaders. It has been ruled by military dictators for 32 of its 60 years of existence.
What it needs now, says commentator Naseem Anwar Beg, is honest elections and an end to military rule. “Some devils will be elected. Some angels will be elected,” he says. “Let it come out.”