Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has expectedly shifted gear and announced that he would quit as army chief to become the country’s civilian president. A senior ruling party official confirmed this yesterday, saying that once the general is re-elected to another five-year term as head of state, he would “take the oath of office as a civilian president” before November 15 when his current term expires. General Musharraf has been in the saddle as chief of army staff since he seized power in a military coup in 1999 despite calls from the opposition parties to quit the dual office. So the latest announcement obviously aims at diluting the strident criticism over the election commission amending rules that blocked General Musharraf from seeking re-election in uniform.
Besides the opposition parties and several lawyer organisations that vociferously oppose the general’s bid, several members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League and its allies — that actually have the numbers in parliament required to re-elect him — too, do not seem keen on a khaki presidency. Another important reason for the president’s decision to give up his uniform probably has to do with the controversial power-sharing deal he is said to have worked out with the exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The Pakistan People’s Party leader has declared that any compact with the general would depend, among other things, on his agreeing to become a civilian president. With his popularity at its lowest ebb, besieged by a Supreme Court that has suddenly shaken off its decades-old lethargy to take the government to task, and bruised by the surging violence in the tribal areas, including attacks on security forces, the general clearly has little choice but to share power with Ms Bhutto. That said, it’s likely that the US is twisting his arm to accommodate Ms Bhutto in Islamabad. This is evident from the reported attempts of Richard Boucher, the US deputy secretary of state for south Asia, to shepherd Ms Bhutto and the general to finalise the power-sharing deal.
Mr Boucher even extended his stay in Islamabad last week until Ms Bhutto announced plans of her return to Pakistan. It’s a delicate balancing act for the general as he’s forced to be seen to act decisively against extremism on one hand, and following the politics of expediency at home to survive on the other.