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Musharraf gropes for way out of Pakistan's crisis

A ham-fisted attempt to sack CJP has created the greatest challenge to General's authority.

world Updated: Mar 19, 2007 12:25 IST

President Pervez Musharraf, scotching rumours of a coup six months ago, told Pakistanis their country was not a "banana republic, where such things happen suddenly."

Filled with trepidation over a deepening political crisis, people could do with a similar reassurance now, but this time Musharraf's crisis is real and appears self-induced.

A ham-fisted attempt to sack Pakistan's top judge, and the use of excessive force to cow the media and counter protests has created the greatest challenge to Musharraf's authority over the Muslim country since he seized power in a coup 7 ½ years ago.

Things got so bad over the weekend that Musharraf said there was a conspiracy to turn people against him, and the United States, worried by instability in an allied country next door to Afghanistan and Iran, called for cool heads to prevail.

By Sunday, Islamabad's rumor mill went into overdrive with talk that the constitution had been suspended, the National and provincial assemblies dissolved and martial law declared.

It was just rumor, but analysts say it could yet happen.

"Musharraf is capable of declaring martial law, and he's capable of making a political retreat and calling it a victory," said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times newspaper.

Having been run by generals for more than half the 60 years since their country was carved out of India as a homeland for South Asia's Muslims, Pakistanis are used to seeing leaders resort to desperate measures.

Vague allegations

The latest crisis began on March 9 with the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary on vague allegations of misconduct, setting off protests by lawyers and opposition politicians.

Analysts suspect the motive for axing Chaudhary was fear that he would block any attempt by Musharraf to hold onto his role as army chief, which he is obliged to relinquish this year.

Television images of police thrashing lawyers in Lahore, and ransacking the offices of a news channel during a demonstration in Islamabad on Friday, stoked public outrage with Musharraf.

"Who is hatching this conspiracy, so that everything is put on me?" the beleaguered president complained the next day.

Musharraf would lose what public trust he still commands if he put the army on the streets, analysts said.

A better option would be to buy time and patch up with self-exiled former premier Benazir Bhutto, they say.

Whatever General Musharraf does his position is critically weakened in a year when he is due to seek re-election.

"It is a complete no-win situation for him," said Sethi.

"The options for him are very clear -- more democracy or greater repression."

Bhutto alliance?

More democracy means relinquishing his role as army chief, and possibly forging alliances with progressive politicians, such as the self-exiled, two-time prime minister Bhutto.

Greater repression means ducking a commitment to hold free and fair national and provincial assembly elections due this year or early next. A senior official told journalists in an off-the-record briefing on Sunday the elections would take place.

Like Musharraf, Bhutto sees religious extremism as the greatest threat to Pakistan, but she will be in no hurry to ally herself with a president accused of flouting the constitution and belittling the office of chief justice.

"Musharraf is becoming a lame duck as far as the political process is concerned," said Ahmed Rashid, an internationally respected Pakistani journalist.

"The system is paralysed with him there."

A sense of foreboding stems from a belief that Musharraf is being ill-advised by non-elected hardliners, including army officers, with scant regard for the country's institutions.

Even if the Supreme Judicial Council hearing accusations against Chaudhary were to recommend his reinstatement, it is hard to see how Musharraf could work with a chief justice who has been lionized for defying him.

Civilian politicians in the ruling coalition have distanced themselves from the controversy, and any judge who supports Chaudhary's removal now risks being regarded as a stooge.

Strain within Pakistan's hybrid military-civilian establishment is showing, as anger turns inwards over the handling of the crisis.

"Some heads may roll," the senior official said.