By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 28 -- With his popularity in free fall and his options narrowing, indications grew Tuesday that Gen. Pervez Musharraf would soon give up his role as army chief in a bid to remain Pakistan's president.
Musharraf, a coup leader who has kept his uniform while running the country for nearly eight years, has long resisted the idea of leaving the army. But as he faces parliamentary elections and Supreme Court challenges that threaten to knock him out of office entirely, some of Musharraf's aides say he would be willing to retire from the military if it enables him to extend his political career.
Such a move is considered a prerequisite if he wants a power-sharing agreement with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, a longtime rival but also a potential partner who could help Musharraf win reelection. In Pakistan, the parliament and provincial assemblies elect the president.
Negotiations in London with Bhutto were said by both sides to have entered a critical phase Tuesday, with a deal expected this week or not at all. Bhutto, who leads the center-left Pakistan People's Party, has insisted that Musharraf consent to giving up his uniform before she signs any agreement that would allow him five more years as president.
Bhutto has also demanded an end to the two-term limit for prime ministers. She served in the office twice in the 1980s and 1990s and would like to return from exile to become prime minister again.
Complicating those plans is another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who has ruled out any compromise with Musharraf and is expected to return to Pakistan in early September now that the Supreme Court has decided he cannot be legally exiled. Sharif, who leads a center-right party, was prime minister until Musharraf ousted him in a military coup in 1999. He left the country, choosing exile over a life sentence imposed on him after Musharraf took over.
Government spokesman Tariq Azim Khan said that while no decision had been made on Musharraf's military future, one is "fast approaching." Musharraf, a strong U.S. ally, has served in the army his entire adult life, and his post is considered his main source of power.
"Whatever happens, he will act according to the constitution," Khan said.
Under Pakistan's constitution, Musharraf is allowed to stay on as army chief until the end of the year. But he might not even be able to remain in the military for that long.
Pakistan is due for parliamentary elections in the coming months, although it has remained unclear whether the outgoing parliament or the newly elected one will choose the next president.
Earlier this year, Musharraf had appeared to have another term locked in, but his decision in March to try to fire the chief justice set off a mass movement against him. Since then, his approval ratings have crashed, according to the most recent poll last month, and with the chief justice reinstated in July, Musharraf faces a hostile Supreme Court.
Attorneys have already filed a petition with the court arguing that Musharraf should be immediately barred from seeking reelection. Anyone who has been a government employee during the past two years, they say, is ineligible for the presidency under Pakistani law. That claim is expected to be heard by the court next week.
Ishaq Khan Khakwani, a government minister who quit his post on Monday because he objected to Musharraf staying on as army chief during his election bid, said Tuesday that he believes the government is on the verge of cutting a deal.
"If he takes off his uniform, he has enough votes" to win a new term, Khakwani said. Otherwise, he said, Musharraf's bid is a long shot.
One legislator from Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League said that the party had been completely demoralized by the recent turn of Pakistani politics and that there was little confidence Musharraf could survive.
"There is an obvious confusion in the rank and file of the ruling party, and nobody knows about their future," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We all have attached our hopes with President Musharraf because we are sailing in the same boat. If his ship is sinking, we will, too."
Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.