Roiled Pakistan prepares for vote

A ruling clearing the way for Musharraf to run for another term spawned weekend protests. Opponents may appeal before the presidential election on Oct. 6.

This past weekend, Constitution Avenue, the major boulevard running through Islamabad, became a battleground for competing visions of Pakistan's future.

Inside the corridors of power that line this wide thoroughfare, President Pervez Musharraf's bid to seek reelection in this week's presidential poll gained momentum with a favorable court ruling and the approval of the national Election Commission.

Outside, however, in a haze of tear gas and a hail of rocks, lawyers, journalists, and political opponents demonstrated against Musharraf, battling security forces.

Legal room remains for opponents to appeal the ruling before the Oct. 6 election. Yet this weekend's events suggest that Pakistan's notes of political chaos, in crescendo for six months, are unlikely to diminish even if Musharraf wins a measure of legal legitimacy.

"I don't think Musharraf has sealed his next five years," says Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based analyst for the Henry L. Stimpson Institute in Washington. "I'm not sure he'll be able to consolidate his control even after he wins the election."

The court ruling, it had been hoped, would be decisive and historic: deciding once and for all whether Musharraf could run for president as Army chief. In a country that has known military rulers for half of its existence, the case had the potential "to begin of redefine the civil-military power relationship in the country," says Hassan Askari Rizvi, a former professor at Columbia University in New York.

Instead, the court essentially punted, dismissing the petitions against Musharraf on technical grounds – saying that the way the petitions were filed was incorrect. It left the core constitutional questions unanswered.

"It seems like a cop-out," says Shafqat Mahmood, a columnist for The News, a daily newspaper in Pakistan, who notes that the court is under enormous pressure from both sides. "It left both sides less than satisfied."

Court's challenge of authority

The verdict came as a surprise to some. Musharraf has faced growing scrutiny since he unsuccessfully attempted to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court six months ago, and the court has played a primary role in challenging his authority. For "the first time in history, we were seeing a judiciary giving one antimilitary judgment after another," says Professor Rizvi.

But the ruling highlights the difficulties of funneling a popular uprising through the courts, which are given to the interpretation of law, not popular opinion. Lawyers from the nation's Bar Association – who have led the six-month campaign against Musharraf – have promised to appeal.

If those attempts fail, however, attention will shift to Pakistan's political parties, which, in many ways, are better suited to be the instrument of the public. Already, the president's political opponents are planning strikes, and some parties have announced mass resignations from the legislature, hoping that a political meltdown will stall the presidential vote.

Yet these disruptive tactics are themselves symbols of how impotent the political opposition has become during Musharraf's tenure.

By the numbers, they cannot prevent Musharraf's reelection. Pakistani presidents are elected in a poll of members of the national parliament and provincial assemblies.

In these bodies, Musharraf has the votes to win, thanks to the disputed results of the previous general election in 2002, which stacked the various legislatures with his supporters.

"The fact that some elements in the political landscape are supporting this … shows how institutions have decayed under this rule," says Mr. Masood, the analyst.

Pressure on opponents

Protests like the ones that occurred this weekend, though, will increase the pressure on political opponents to do something, says Samina Ahmed, an Islamabad-based security analyst for the International Crisis Group. "Will they come up to the expectations of civil society or not?"

But Musharraf, too, is increasingly dealing from a position of weakness. His falling public approval at home – 38 percent, according to one poll – has resulted in mounting pressure from abroad. Western governments want him to show some signs of a move toward legitimate democracy.

Bowing to this pressure, he has vowed to resign as Army chief if he is reelected. Though he has reorganized the Army hierarchy in an attempt to ensure that that the Army would remain loyal to him, taking off the uniform risks separating him from his true power source.

"Once he takes off the uniform, he will be vulnerable," says Mr. Mahmood, the columnist. "He has no real [popular] support base, which means he'll have to depend on others."

As evidence of this, Musharraf has tried to placate some of his opposition. Benazir Bhutto, head of Pakistan's largest party, the Pakistan People's Party, has been in sporadic talks with the president in past months, as has Fazlur Rahman, the leader of the Islamist opposition.

It presents a picture of a weakened president and weak politicans leaning on each other to share the spoils of power, and Ms. Bhutto has already taken a hit in public opinion for dealing with Musharraf.

What happens between now and Oct. 6 could set the tone for what happens in months to come, experts say. With parliamentary elections set for early next year, the run-up to this week's presidential elections will offer a window into whether Pakistan's political parties will accept Musharraf as the legitimate president or not. Says Ms. Ahmed: "We need to wait and see what happens in the next few days."

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