Teetering Musharraf Buoyed by U.S. Alliance

Thousands massed in Islamabad Saturday night to hear suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who warned against autocratic leadership.
Thousands massed in Islamabad Saturday night to hear suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who warned against autocratic leadership. (By Paula Bronstein -- Getty Images)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 28, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 27 -- As confidence in Gen. Pervez Musharraf falls at home and abroad amid allegations he is moving away from democracy and becoming increasingly autocratic, the Pakistani president has had at least one unwavering ally: the United States.

Pakistanis -- particularly opposition figures -- are watching for signs that that will change. Any indication of weakening support from the United States, they say, could spell the end of Musharraf's teetering administration. But policymakers and analysts here and in Washington insist that is unlikely because the United States lacks a Plan B in Pakistan and is uncomfortable with alternatives to a man who has been considered a vital ally since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"U.S. policy in Pakistan is to move toward free and fair elections. But in practice, that comes in well behind the anti-terrorism agenda," said Teresita C. Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador and director of the South Asia program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Musharraf has been embroiled in the strongest challenge yet to his rule since he suspended the country's chief justice on March 9 for alleged abuses of office. The judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, has denied the charges, and his name has become a rallying cry for Musharraf critics who suspect the president is trying to squelch democratic institutions and consolidate power. Chaudhry had been expected to decide cases later this year that could have derailed Musharraf's plans to serve another term.

Thousands massed in the capital Saturday night -- many wearing stickers emblazoned with Chaudhry's face and the words "My Hero" -- as the chief justice warned against the dangers of autocratic leadership. "The determination of the people cannot be resisted for long. The cause is noble," he said.

The cause, Chaudhry's supporters say, is an end to military rule and a return to democracy, eight years after Musharraf seized power from the democratically elected prime minister in a bloodless coup. For the past two months, lawyers and opposition groups have staged rallies across Pakistan, some of which have been met with violence by security forces or pro-Musharraf groups. Earlier this month, more than 40 people were killed during clashes in Karachi, the country's largest city.

Musharraf critics say the violent response suggests that the president has become desperate and will use force to cling to power rather than allow elections that could dilute it.

"There are fires burning all across Pakistan. But instead of trying to defuse them, he's stoking them," said Sherry Rehman, information secretary for the Pakistan People's Party, a leading opposition group.

Musharraf insists he has his own plan for returning democracy to Pakistan. In his 2006 memoir, he wrote that since the end of the Cold War, the West has been obsessed with democracy and that "this obsession clouds its vision. . . . I have always believed in democracy, but I certainly oppose any fixed formula for all countries. If democracy is to be functional and sustainable, it has to be tailored to local conditions."

He would like to tailor it in a way that would allow him to be elected to another five-year term by a parliament that is packed with his supporters and is set to expire this fall. It also might involve staying on as both president and head of the army, even though the constitution requires him to relinquish his military position by the end of the year.

Musharraf has said national parliamentary elections will be held as scheduled, but he recently ruled out the possibility that his two biggest rivals -- former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif -- will be allowed to return from exile in time to participate. Both have said they plan to return anyway.

Musharraf's handling of the judicial crisis and his plans for the elections have earned him rebukes from European nations.

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