By John Ward Anderson and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 24, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 23 -- As critical elections in Pakistan approach, President Pervez Musharraf is increasingly losing support from major constituencies, including his traditional military base, amid growing questions in both Pakistan and the United States about his ability to govern.
On Wednesday, a group of more than 100 retired military officers, including influential air marshals, admirals, generals and security agency chiefs, called on Musharraf to step down immediately in order to help restore democracy and deal with Islamic radicals who have made territorial inroads in recent months.
A statement from the Ex-Servicemen's Society said that it had been monitoring recent events "with great concern and anguish" and that Musharraf's resignation was "in the supreme national interest."
Musharraf has repeatedly defied expectations of his political demise, and few observers believe that the parliamentary balloting Feb. 18 will lead to his immediate ouster.
But Pakistani analysts and U.S. officials said that the political challenges Musharraf faces are greater than they have been in the past and that his allies at home and abroad are fewer. While he has alienated former military leaders, there are signs that active-duty officers may be distancing themselves from him as well.
Musharraf's handpicked successor as army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, is unlikely to come to the rescue of his old boss, analysts said. Kiyani last week issued an order that no military officers can meet with the president without his approval and indicated that he would recall the many military officers placed in civilian jobs under Musharraf.
"The army would be very happy to get rid of him," said one political analyst, Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general.
A senior U.S. congressional official who recently visited Pakistan said the military is ready for Musharraf to step down but does not want to have to remove him, preferring instead to wait until he recognizes the need to exit.
The domestic souring on Musharraf comes as U.S. intelligence officials have told agencies in Washington for the first time that the Pakistani leader may be beyond political rescue or long-term relevance.
If Pakistan's opposition gains two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in the elections, the president faces the possibility of impeachment. And even if he can assemble a coalition government, officials said, he is likely to struggle politically as Pakistan confronts economic problems and a growing Islamic extremist movement.
Musharraf, meanwhile, has few resources to draw on these days.
"It's political suicide for anyone to go with Musharraf -- he's totally isolated," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political and social scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Frustration is growing among Musharraf's military and political allies partly because he is not listening to their advice, U.S. and Pakistani analysts said. "He's locked in his own bubble that 'l'etat, c'est moi' -- the state is me. He doesn't understand how anti-democratic he is. He's not thinking clearly anymore," said the senior congressional official.
The Bush administration is still backing Musharraf, even as officials speak more frequently of working with "the Pakistani people," instead of "the Pakistani leader." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday met Musharraf on the outskirts of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in the highest-level contact since he declared emergency rule in November.
Rice pressed him to ensure that the vote is free and fair and that the Pakistani people have confidence in the results, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Such remarks suggest that the administration is discounting the new assessments on Musharraf from intelligence and congressional officials.
"You're going to get all kinds of people saying he's done for," said a senior administration official. "No one can make that prediction at this point. . . . He's moved into a new job. He will have to work with a new prime minister and they'll have to work out the responsibilities. And they will have to lead in a country without many leaders."
But the divide is increasingly deep in Washington. "U.S. policy is not being made by anyone who understands Pakistan. . . . Musharraf is a walking corpse," the congressional official said.
Pakistani analysts agree that, with his popularity plummeting and electoral prospects dwindling, Musharraf is confronted with nothing but hard choices. His popularity is so low that if he and his party allies in the Pakistan Muslim League-Q win the elections, he will be accused of rigging the vote. If he loses and opponents take control of parliament, he faces the risk of impeachment.
Looking for a way out, Musharraf and his allies are searching for partners to join an interim national unity government that could take office soon and postpone elections for perhaps a year, according to political analysts and the local news media. In their view, Musharraf could use the delay to rehabilitate his image among Pakistani voters.
Some analysts say Musharraf's electoral prospects are not as grim as they seem, arguing that he has strong backing among key feudal families with big voting blocs in central Punjab province, which has about 55 percent of the seats in the country's 342-seat National Assembly and is pivotal to any party's hope of winning power.
If no party gets a clear majority on Feb. 18 and the seats are split among the dominant three political factions, it is anybody's guess as to what will happen.
The Pakistan People's Party, which was led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto until her assassination last month, has reportedly turned down an offer to join an interim unity government.
Still, the lure of power could prove decisive.
"It's been 12 long years that the PPP has been out of power," said Mushahid Hussein, secretary general of Musharraf's party. "They are not going to blow it by rocking the boat."
Wright reported from Washington. Correspondent Griff Witte in Islamabad contributed to this report.