Many Pakistanis See Leader As Having Reigned Too Long

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 14, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- When he grabbed power in a military coup eight years ago, then-Gen. Pervez Musharraf was cheered here for rescuing Pakistan from corrupt and incompetent politicians who had forestalled democracy and dragged the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Surveys showed an astonishing 70 percent of Pakistanis supported the military's overthrow of the elected government.

"The armed forces have no intention of staying in charge any longer than absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish in Pakistan," Musharraf declared in a televised address shortly after seizing power. "This is not martial law; it is only another path to democracy."

Today, despite transforming himself from military dictator to civilian president, Musharraf has overstayed his welcome, according to critics including politicians, pollsters and citizens on the street. In a poll taken two months ago, 67 percent of those surveyed said he should resign.

"When he took power, we felt that he'd take us down the right path and then go after two or three years, but now he's been here eight years, and who can question him, who can tell him to go?" said Abdul Rauf, 40, the owner of a men's shop in Islamabad's upper-class Jinnah Shopping Market.

For many, Musharraf's greatest failure has been his inability to break Pakistan's addiction to dynastic parties and personality cults, evidenced by the 10 years of corrupt, failed governments led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, a pair of prime ministers whom Musharraf accused of presiding over an "era of sham democracy."

"Musharraf's coup in 1999 was widely perceived as deliverance from the inept and corrupt cycles of political rule by PML and PPP," or Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan People's Party, the parties of Sharif and Bhutto, Pakistani political analyst Rifaat Hussain wrote in an e-mail. "Many of us had pinned hopes on Musharraf to reform the system and lead the way forward."

Now, "it is a measure of the bankruptcy of Musharraf's eight-year-long rule in Pakistan that today PPP and PML have emerged as real contenders for power once again," Hussain said. "Only he could have revived the political fortunes of these two political parties."

Disenchantment with Musharraf's hold on power has grown even within his own party, which is bitterly divided over how he engineered his reelection in the fall by a lame-duck parliament stacked with his supporters. At the time, he still led the army; after his win, he sacked a Supreme Court that threatened to invalidate it.

Ishaq Khan Khakwani resigned his cabinet post in protest. Khakwani said in an interview that he told Musharraf he supported him personally, but "I was not a follower of the country's generals being president," he said, arguing that "elections are to resolve problems in society, not to create them."

Now, Khakwani said, he has returned to Musharraf's fold because he has no other political home, and supporting corrupt and ineffective leaders from the past was not an option for him. He compared his "dilemma" to that of the United States. "You have to pick and choose, and like me, they have nowhere else to go. Musharraf is better than the others. That is all."

Today, analysts say Musharraf's grip on power is increasingly tenuous following a series of political calamities, including his unpopular six-week declaration of emergency rule and the assassination of Bhutto.

With Bhutto's allies blaming Musharraf for not adequately protecting her and botching the investigation into her death, it is unclear which political parties, if any, will join with him and his branch of the Pakistan Muslim League, the PML-Q, after elections scheduled for Feb. 18. That raises the possibility that a hostile parliament could try to unseat him.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company