By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 4 -- A top adviser to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged Tuesday that the general's options for staying in power are increasingly bleak and said that a declaration of emergency is being considered as a way of keeping him in office.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, said that while a complete military takeover under martial law had been ruled out, a state of emergency that would allow for the postponement of elections for up to a year and the curtailment of individual liberties was still on the table. "Martial law is a very harsh word," Hussain said in an interview. "Emergency rule is not so harsh."
The comments came on the same day that nearly simultaneous bombs tore through a market and a bus in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, killing 25 people and injuring more than 60 others in attacks that seemed to target the Pakistani military. The bus, operated by the Defense Ministry, was taking employees of Pakistan's influential Inter-Services Intelligence branch to work, according to witnesses and officials.
Hussain's comments also came as government negotiators made a last-ditch effort to strike a deal with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, a bitter Musharraf rival but one who could rescue him politically in exchange for a shot at returning to power herself.
Officials from both sides said there had been progress during talks in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, though they also indicated that a significant gulf remained between the two parties. Among the stumbling blocks was whether Bhutto would be eligible for a third term as prime minister.
With elections looming, political factions in Pakistan are embroiled in high-stakes maneuvering that could have vast implications for the future of the country. Musharraf, who has run Pakistan since a military-led coup in 1999, is seeking reelection by the parliament and provincial assemblies this month. But as opposition to his government builds, he must overcome significant legal and political hurdles.
According to the constitution, government employees have to resign and wait two years before they are eligible to run for president. Musharraf is considered a government employee because he remains chief of the army.
According to many analysts, if Musharraf lacks Bhutto's support for a parliamentary waiver of the requirement, the Supreme Court will declare his presidential candidacy invalid.
A case challenging his eligibility is due to be heard Wednesday, with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry -- a man Musharraf tried to fire this year -- leading the bench. Hussain said he is not optimistic about the president's chances there.
"It looks like zero," he said, before adding that there is still a possibility other judges will vote in the president's favor.
If the president loses before the Supreme Court, Hussain said, Musharraf's "presidency will be over" unless he takes one of two steps. He could declare emergency rule, which Hussain called "the last option," or he could call parliamentary elections before the presidential vote.
Both options would be major gambles, however. Musharraf seemed on the verge of declaring an emergency last month, reportedly on the advice of Hussain and others. But he backed down under domestic and international pressure, including from Washington. The current parliament is stacked in his favor, but with his popularity in fast decline, there is a strong chance that the new parliament would not elect him.
A deal with Bhutto could give Musharraf additional leverage, though Hussain, who has been a critic of the negotiations, said he believes there is only a 20 percent chance of an agreement.
Musharraf's opponents expressed concern on Tuesday that the Rawalpindi attacks may be used as part of a pretext for canceling the elections. If fair elections are held, they insist, voters would turn out against the general. "This one-man show should be abandoned now once and for all," said Imran Khan, leader of the opposition Justice Movement.
Hussain, whose party was cobbled together by Musharraf after the 1999 coup, indicated that Musharraf has a third option: He could decide to resign the presidency and try to keep his job as army chief.
"That's up to him," Hussain said.
Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.