Reprinted from Tribune Media Services
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has dodged a lot of bullets over the years. He's survived multiple assassination attempts, managed intense U.S. pressure to drive jihadis from the country's northwest frontier no-man's land, and weathered domestic charges that he is a dictator and American puppet.
Some of his old allies have abandoned him, two former prime ministers have demanded his resignation, and his bid to sack Pakistan's chief justice has provoked outrage, deadly violence and the first large-scale public protests of his nearly eight-year rule.
In short, he's already used up most of his nine lives.
Adding to his troubles, it's an election year in Pakistan. Musharraf knows he must scramble and improvise if he is to both extend his presidency another five years and maintain his position as army chief.
His core political support comes from a coalition that includes the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), a party he invented following the 1999 coup that vaulted him to power, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), an ethnically based party blamed for provoking political violence around the country -- including riots in Karachi on May 12 that killed more than 40 anti-government demonstrators.
The list of his enemies is growing. It includes exiled former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both of whom hope to return to Pakistan to contest national and state assembly elections this fall; Islamic radicals who charge that his army has killed Pakistani tribesmen sympathetic with Afghanistan's Taliban to appease American crusaders and that he has broken promises to serve as a civilian president, secular middle-class professionals fed up with broken promises of full democracy, and allies within the military elite who fear they will share the blame for his missteps.
Musharraf has survived tough challenges before, and it won't be so easy to drive him from power. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won parliamentary elections five years ago. But Musharraf managed to exclude the PPP from government by persuading 10 of its members to defect to his coalition and by forging a political deal with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a loose alliance of six conservative religious parties that hope to one day bring theocracy to Pakistan.
But even a political operator as skilled as Musharraf may not survive the current crisis indefinitely. Recent polling suggests Bhutto's party remains popular, and the president's former Islamist allies have almost entirely abandoned him, mainly over his support for the U.S.-led war on terror.
Still, Musharraf shows no sign of retreat. Under the current constitution, Pakistan's president is elected by four provincial assemblies and the parliament. Knowing that the next parliament will contain fewer of his loyalists than the current one, Musharraf intends to seek re-election before the next parliamentary elections reshuffle the political deck. He also hopes to extend the life of a constitutional amendment, due to lapse this year, which allows the president to remain chief of the army. He may decide to try to rig the elections. All these moves would spark court challenges.
That's why control of the courts is so important -- and why Musharraf decided in March to sack Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the country's capricious chief justice who offered no promises to rule in the president's favor. Unfortunately for Musharraf, the judge has refused to go quietly. Chaudhry's criticism of the president has won him admirers all over Pakistan, encouraging him to tour the countryside, whipping up anti-Musharraf fervor as he lectures on the importance of an independent judiciary.
During Chaudhry's recent tour, so many well-wishers mobbed a car carrying him from Islamabad to Lahore that they reportedly transformed a four-hour drive into a 24-hour crawl. Chaudhry lacks the political base to challenge the president politically, but he has fast become an icon of determined defiance of Musharraf's rule.
Adding to the president's (and the country's) troubles, sectarian violence from elsewhere in the region has spilled into Pakistan. Saudi and Iranian elements are financing rival sectarian militants within the country as proxies in their battle for ideological dominance of the greater Middle East. Pakistan has suffered more than 80 major sectarian attacks in 2007, twice the total for all of last year.
This remains a far cry from the level of violence in central Iraq, but attacks in Pakistan are steadily becoming technically and tactically more sophisticated, with deadlier explosives and a sharp increase in suicide bombings. Parallel to the sectarian violence, pro-Taliban Sunni militants are aiming not only at government and Western targets but at Shiite ones, as well.
Pervez Musharraf's resume has its successes. His support for talented technocrats and their liberal economic reforms has earned him accolades both at home and abroad. But not even strong growth rates (expected to reach 7 percent in 2007), his tolerance for a relatively free press, and the stability that comes with some $10 billion in U.S. aid since 9/11 can guarantee his political survival -- particularly since corruption, inflation, high crime rates and rural poverty continue to burden Pakistan's development.
In fact, the support Musharraf receives from Washington, where he is regarded as a crucial ally on the frontline of the war on terror and the ultimate safeguard against radical control of the only Muslim country (so far) to successfully test a nuclear bomb, only deepens the hole in which he now finds himself at home. Musharraf has often chosen to appease his American benefactors at the expense of his domestic standing. The political cost of that choice is on the rise.
If Musharraf refuses to restore Chaudhry to his post, public protests could spin out of control, persuading the president to declare a state of emergency and sharply upping the stakes for his political future. If Musharraf finds a face-saving way to give the chief justice his job back, the courts may not rule in his favor as he seeks to maintain his hold on both the presidency and the army.
Sorting out all these grievances and rivalries will take time -- more time perhaps than Musharraf has. He is unlikely to lose his grip on power over the next few weeks, and even if he doesn't survive the year, the military will continue to dominate Pakistan and maintain its generally pro-Western outlook and the country's baseline stability.
But Pakistan is in for a lot of uncertainty, and the country's longer-term economic and security outlook is becoming increasingly difficult to forecast. For now, all eyes are on Musharraf -- as the world wonders just how many lives he has left.