As Pakistan lifts emergency rule, Musharraf eyes next step

In six weeks of emergency rule, which was lifted on Saturday, Pakistan's president has tightened his hold on power.

When Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule six weeks ago, it was a decision fraught with peril – the opposition was threatening mass protests, and he seemed in imminent danger of being overthrown.

In lifting the emergency Saturday, however, Mr. Musharraf can be confident that his gambit has worked as well as he could have hoped. In six weeks, he has packed the courts with loyal judges, amended the Constitution to protect him from legal challenges, and eviscerated the media's powers. And his political opposition is weaker and more fractured than before.

With parliamentary elections still ahead in January, he has not yet won. But he has pulled back from the brink of disaster, and significantly upped his chances of survival.

"He has mastered the art of how to navigate through a critical situation," say Tarik Jan, a political analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad.

Before he declared emergency rule on Nov. 3, Musharraf's reelection as president was challenged by lawsuits and undercut by the fact that much of the opposition boycotted the vote. He was also under pressure to resign as chief of the Pakistani Army.

With emergency rule, however, he has largely erased these challenges, while tightening his hold on power. Indeed, experts say they expect little change with the end of the emergency. The curbs on media remain, and some people are still under house arrest, most notably the former chief justice of the Supreme Court, who had become a rallying point for the anti-Musharraf campaign. With Musharraf's handpicked judges sworn in, opportunities for legal redress seem slight.

"The lifting of the emergency will not make much of a difference," says Mr. Jan. "I don't think [civil society] will be able to get justice."

The ultimate success or failure of Musharraf's gambit could depend on the results of the parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8. If the elections are free and fair, as Musharraf has promised, polls suggest that voters will return a hung parliament – split three ways between the parties of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and Musharraf.

Such a scenario would make it unlikely that one of Musharraf's party would become prime minister – making it tempting for him to rig the elections, experts say.

Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif – who share a deep antipathy for Musharraf – could also marginalize him or overturn the safeguards he introduced. For instance, Sharif has said his party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), will reinstate the sacked Supreme Court justices.

Musharraf was accused of tampering with election results in 2002 to ensure a majority for his party. Yet if he were to do it again, it could rekindle the crisis. If his party wins, "there will be no peace in Pakistan," says Ayesha Jalal, a professor of history at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass.

In 2002, he was popular, seen as a take-charge general rescuing Pakistan from a decade of disastrous civilian rule. Now, 70 percent of Pakistanis want him gone, says a poll by the International Republican Institute.

In the end, it could be in Musharraf's interest to hold free elections, to avoid an uprising. Moreover, given the likely results, Musharraf could end up playing kingmaker in a fractured parliament. "He would be calling the shots," says Dr. Jalal."People would be coming to him for patronage."

Though Bhutto and Sharif both threatened to boycott the coming elections if Musharraf did not meet a list of demands, they have been unable to agree on what those demands should be, and the would-be alliance disintegrated.

Both parties will now contest the election. "They [political parties] would rather have their share in ruling the nation than oppose him," says Jan.

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