Pakistani protesters eager for Bhutto-Sharif deal

As Pakistani opposition leaders mull running in January elections, analysts doubt street activists' patience for a decision on Musharraf.

Shahid Khan, a university student in Lahore who became politically active this year in the street movement against President Pervez Musharraf, is losing patience. With a month to go before the general elections in January, major opposition leaders who have recently flown in from all across the globe still haven't let activists and party workers in on a very basic element of the opposition's strategy: Will they participate in the elections or will they boycott?

As student groups, journalists, and lawyers continue to demonstrate across the country every day to maintain the momentum on the streets, and party workers lay the groundwork for possible election campaigns at the grass-roots level, most major leaders seem frozen in their collective indecision.

And some in Pakistan are beginning to seriously question whether the old-guard political leadership can be agents of change after all. Tiring of instability and martial law, some even seem ready to tolerate President Musharraf's continued rule, rather than throwing their lot with what seems like a deeply fractured opposition that is doing little but add to the general air of uncertainty.

"How much longer will this go on?" asks an exasperated Mr. Khan. "If they can't even decide what they want right now, why should we expect that they can work together and lead us in the future?"

Former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have spent a good part of the last several weeks hammering out a list of demands for Musharraf in return for calling off a boycott that could spoil the legitimacy of parliamentary elections, which will take place in January "come hell or high water," according to the president.

With the major leaders' negotiation in stalemate, the debate on how to approach the elections has been thrown wide open in the print and broadcast media, in online chat rooms, and roadside tea stalls. It appears to be a debate of pragmatism versus idealism. But with each passing day that the two leaders meet and fail to arrive on any common platform, frustration and skepticism is rising.

Unless the opposition takes a strong stand against Musharraf, says Shuja Nawaz in a blog posting, "The country may have to wait for its Velvet Revolution for a long time, though many in Pakistan hope not the 20 years that Czechs and Slovaks had to wait for their democracy."

Sounding an accommodationist note, an editorial in the Daily Times, a large English-language newspaper, argues that "the demands" by the opposition "will have to be realistic and should encourage the government and [Musharraf] to 'give ground.' "

The decision to boycott is a very delicate political calculation – no one party can go at it alone.

Boycotting without a broad consensus would mean potential irrelevance for the parties that sit out the election and vacate the field for Musharraf loyalists, analysts say. The boycott decision would have to be unanimous to apply any real pressure on Musharraf. Even one major opposition party's decision to enter the race – and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party seems inclined to do so – could pull all other parties into the fold and legitimize the election process, at least on the surface.

"By participating in the elections, which they can do under protest, they will be able to have a voice within the system while pushing for change," argues Fasi Zaka, a popular satirical TV-show host. "Taking to the streets upsets the apple cart and damages the produce."

The question of whether or not to demand reinstatement of the judges that Musharraf sacked when he declared a state of emergency last month has become a central issue dividing the opposition parties' election strategy. The ousted Supreme Court had demonstrated its independence from the military and executive, and some leaders, including Mr. Sharif, Imran Khan, the leader of the Movement for Justice party; and Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the leader of Pakistan's largest Islamist party; are demanding the justices be reinstated before the elections as a way to ensure fairness and transparency.

Meanwhile, Bhutto, other smaller nationalist parties, and some other Islamist party leaders seem ready to let the issue slide, realizing that Musharraf is likely to deny demands for reinstatement, which would amount to his own political suicide.

"There could be a consensus to go ahead and contest the elections and deal with the judiciary's cause, post-election," says Shireen Mazari, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad. "But that is as good as casting the issue aside," since the judiciary is central to the election process.

Election commissioners are drawn from the high courts in Pakistan and lower-level election officers are also recruited from the judiciary.

Besides deciding who can contest the elections, the election commission also oversees the election process and offers recourse to settle the many disputes and complaints that invariably arise in any elections' aftermath in Pakistan.

The stalemate caused by this issue plays well into Musharraf's plan to stay in power for the foreseeable future, because a divided opposition – especially if they all end up contesting the elections – would likely lead to a divided legislature with no one leader emerging powerful enough to challenge the ex-general's power.

"In this whole process the civil society missed an important third option," says Ms. Mazari. Instead of relying on political parties, they should have fielded their own independent candidates. "Real change could have only come with new faces," she says.

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