Pakistani Army chief Pervez Musharraf is inching closer to securing not only a new term as president in elections Saturday, but also a much-needed dose of political legitimacy for his embattled regime.
A power-sharing deal with Benazir Bhutto, leader of Pakistan's largest political party, had not yet been fully agreed to at press time. But experts and foreign officials agree that it is now virtually inevitable, save the event of an 11th-hour court ruling that stops the elections.
The deal, if consummated, would be a triumph for the US, which seeks to keep Mr. Musharraf as an intermediary between the powerful Pakistani Army and a civilian government with at least the trappings of a true democracy.
Perhaps more important, the deal would boost hopes of resolving Pakistan's six-month political crisis peacefully and quickly, allowing the country to concentrate on fighting the Al Qaeda-fed insurgency on its western border, which is destabilizing Afghanistan and has created a new global breeding ground for terrorism.
But the deal comes at a cost to Musharraf, who has realized he has little public support. If he is to quit as Army chief, as he has promised to do under immense domestic and foreign pressure, he needs to ally himself with a popular politician like Ms. Bhutto in order to maintain a modicum of power, experts say.
Indeed, many suggest the deal marks Musharraf's continued decline, not his resurgence. Without Bhutto's support, the president's regime increasingly looks unsustainably fragile.
"While he might survive for a while, it would be very difficult to imagine him continuing for a long time," says Khalid Rahman of the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad.
What Bhutto wants
Bhutto, who will return from exile Oct. 18, said her final decision about the government's offer would come Friday. She wants three things from Musharraf:
• Amnesty from charges that she embezzled millions of dollars from the country.
• Guarantees that Musharraf will resign as Army chief.
• A change in the Constitution that would allow her to serve a third term as prime minister if her party wins a majority in January elections.
In return, she would promise that the members of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) would not resign from the federal or provincial parliaments in protest against Musharraf's candidacy as president and Army chief – as some opposition parties already have. This would be crucial to Musharraf's legitimacy as president, since the president is elected by these legislative bodies, not the people.
Technically, Musharraf doesn't need the PPP to be reelected. His supporters have a majority, though experts say that's due to previous voter fraud. But if all opposition parties walked out, the elections would appear to be a farce.
The hope is that the alliance would bring stability to Pakistan, which has lurched from crisis to crisis since Musharraf unsuccessfully attempted to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court in March. But it raises the question of whether Musharraf has been cornered into a choice that could ultimately be his undoing.
Would a Bhutto-Musharraf deal bring stability?
Though his regime has the sheen of a democracy, Musharraf's power clearly comes from his ties to the military, which is the most influential institution in Pakistan. In taking off the uniform, experts say, he is not vulnerable to a new coup – the top Army brass are all his allies, and many have been pushing him toward a wholly civilian role for months, says a Western official. They worry that his drop in popularity has hurt them, too, denting the Army's previously spotless reputation.
Instead, becoming a civilian president means Musharraf must be solely a political figure, and he has virtually no support base or political apparatus. At first, he would still maintain the substantial powers he moved to the president's office during his term, but with no major political backing, it is unclear how he could hold on.
Moreover, though Musharraf and Bhutto have invested months – some reports say years – into a potential deal, it remains to be seen how the two would coexist politically. "Musharraf has always ruled with all power concentrated in him," says Sajjad Naseer a political scientist at the Lahore School of Economics. "Bhutto is a strong personality and she won't be like the other prime ministers Musharraf is used to."
Some observers suggest the deal merely continues a long tradition of power passing hands by backroom brokering and military coups, not popular will.
"Pakistani politics has been reduced to a series of elite bargains," says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political expert at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
The fact that Bhutto apparently has decided to return in this fashion rather than with the support of a movement, he says, is testament to a political elite that is increasingly divorced from popular sentiment. He adds, "She recognizes her inability to mobilize the masses any longer."