Pakistan seems to be sliding deeper into instability — under the watchful eyes of President Pervez Musharraf. Few people would buy the embattled general’s announcement that he plans to step down as army chief once his presidency is confirmed and that parliamentary elections are to be held by mid-February. The general has put former premier Benazir Bhutto under house arrest to prevent her from leading her much-publicised protest procession. Called the “long march”, the mass motorcade from Lahore to Islamabad was ostensibly organised to demand the resignation of the general as army chief, end emergency rule, reinstate the constitution, and free detained protestors. Over the last week, police cracked down on thousands of protestors. From all accounts, some of those arrested even face treason charges, which carry the death penalty.
All this bears more than a passing resemblance to political theatre. For General Musharraf’s decision to barricade Ms Bhutto in her house, and then allow her to broadcast to the nation on official Pakistani television smells downright fishy. Since the crisis overshadows the power-sharing agreement between Ms Bhutto and the beleaguered general, it is clear that the longer their public conflict — whether choreographed or not — continues, the more the chances of the pact collapsing completely. That could spell more turmoil. This suggests that Ms Bhutto could have called for the “long march” to revive her own flagging political fortunes. For all her rhetoric about ‘democracy’, she still crafts her demands within parameters acceptable to the US.
In other words, she appears to be banking on the Bush administration to keep the general in line. This is borne out by the Pakistan People’s Party’s reluctance to demand General Musharraf’s removal and reinstatement of the Supreme Court judges. So it is likely that Ms Bhutto is keen on exploiting the current crisis and put General Musharraf under more pressure so that he sticks by their previous agreement.