Pakistan's Musharraf Is Cozying Up To Old Rivals

The arrest of a top al Qaeda leader in Pakistan in early May marked another win for President Pervez Musharraf. He is already held in high esteem in Washington for his role in the war on terror. And he has recently returned from a peacemaking trip to New Delhi that was key to his effort to resolve the long-standing Kashmir dispute. "His body language, his walk, suggest he is very, very comfortable," says Ayaz Amir, an independent political analyst based in Chakwal.

But the question is: For how long? Behind the scenes, a power struggle is brewing. Musharraf is under pressure from the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), a band of religious parties that he tapped as a coalition partner after a pro-Musharraf party won a thin majority in 2002 parliamentary elections. It's an uneasy alliance: Musharraf is liberal-minded and pro-Western. But the MMA, also the governing party in the Northwest Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, is increasingly pushing its right-wing agenda. It's preparing a bill that would ban women from appearing in advertisements. It's preventing male doctors in the province it runs from treating women. Moderate Muslims, who represent the majority of Pakistanis, fear that more extremist restrictions could follow.

Broken Pledge

The other issue dogging Musharraf is his own legitimacy as President. He promised to leave the army and give up his rank of general by last December, but he still has not done so. Failure to honor that pledge damages Musharraf's standing as a leader to many Pakistanis, and abroad.

So to distance himself from the religious parties and shore up his power base, Musharraf may be on the verge of a remarkable political turnabout. After spending more than five years condemning former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who have been living in exile since Musharraf came to power in a 1999 coup, the President appears to be reaching out to these rivals behind the scenes. By offering some power to Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) -- the largest national party -- and Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, Musharraf is hoping to win their support to stay on for five more years as President, after general elections are held as scheduled in 2007, or earlier. Aligning with the centrist parties also helps polish his image in the West. Washington is already applauding. "President Musharraf is reaching out to mainstream politicians as part of his effort to move ahead with his programs for Pakistan," says a State Dept. official.

Musharraf moved decisively in December by freeing Bhutto's husband, PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, after eight years in jail on corruption charges. That came after the religious parties criticized Musharraf for holding on to his army title. Musharraf's government has launched talks with Bhutto's and Sharif's parties. Both exiled leaders are eager to reenter politics. "We want free and fair elections in 2005 -- and the army to go back to the barracks," says Taj Haider, central information secretary of the PPP. Pundits believe that, as part of a deal to secure the PPP's backing for him to remain President, Musharraf would give up his army post.

Will Musharraf's courting of the centrist opposition be enough to neutralize the religious parties? In the short term, probably yes. But President Musharraf would still have to explain to voters why he reneged on a vow to ban Bhutto and Sharif from politics forever. Pakistan's democratic transition is still a work in progress.

By Naween A. Mangi in Karachi

Edited by Rose Brady

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