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Pakistani Critics Decry Musharraf Re-Election Ploy

Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf is entering a crucial period of his military rule. His aides say he intends to seek re-election when his term in office expires in November. But an intense dispute has already begun over the way he's planning to go about it.

More than seven years have elapsed since Musharraf seized power in a coup. As president and Army chief of staff, he says he practices "enlightened moderation."

His opponents disagree. They say the army and intelligence agencies are now by far the most powerful forces in Pakistan.

"Military is controlling this country 100 percent," says Tariq Mahmood, a civil-rights lawyer and Musharraf critic. "Everywhere you go, whether it is education or health, whether it's the national highway authority, everywhere where there's stakes involved, where money is lying, the military officers whether they are serving or retired, they are holding the job."

Despite several attempts on his life, Musharraf wants another five-year term. That's not in doubt.

What is at issue is the way he appears to be planning to go about it.

In Pakistan, the president is appointed by an electoral college made up of the provincial and national legislatures.

Musharraf's aides make little secret of his plans to seek re-election from these bodies, even though their five-year terms also expire at the end of the year.

Doing it that way, Musharraf knows that he will get the simple majority he needs.

"This has never happened before and it is probably what we feel is unconstitutional and undemocratic," says Iqbal Zafar Jhagra. He is a member of the PML-N, the party of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister ousted by Musharraf's coup.

Jhagra believes Musharraf should hold free and fair elections for new legislatures before seeking re-election himself.

The MMA, a powerful alliance of Ilamic parties, is also outraged by a plan that one representative, Professor Khurshed Ahmad, calls "preposterous."

"An assembly elected for five years cannot elect a president for ten years," he says. "Although [Musharraf] says he's a very brave person, he's not prepared to meet the people in a normal democratic process."

Humayan Gohar, a staunch Musharraf supporter, says he edited the president's recent autobiography. He's widely believed to have served as ghostwriter.

He says Musharraf's re-election plan conforms with the constitution.

"If you are talking about spirit and morality, then what are you talking about?" he asks. "It's there in writing."

The argument does not impress Musharraf's opponents. They point out that Muhsarraf has changed the constitution in the past to ensure that he would keep his job.

The job is not an easy one. A fresh reminder came a few days ago when a suicide bomber killed himself and a guard with a blast at Islamabad's Marriott Hotel. The following day, more than a dozen people were killed in another suicide attack, this time in the frontier city of Peshwar.

Musharraf's Pakistan is full of sectarian bloodletting, with separatist unrest in the country's largest province, Baluchistan.

Above all, there's the rising power of the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, plus an assortment of additional Islamist militants who despise Musharraf and his alliance with the U.S. in the so-called war on terror.

That alliance, says Humayan Gohar, is why the United States wants Musharraf to secure another term.

"As long as the war on terror is going on, they would like a person who has control of the situation," Gohar says. "In a critical situation like this, you need a person — you don't need looters, blunderers. So, yeah, the Americans may like it."

America's support for Musharraf is a sore point with Pakistan's opposition parties.

Iqbal Zafar Jhagra believes the U.S. wants Musharraf to continue his military rule simply because he's a key ally.

"They have a dual policy," he says. "They want democracy for their own people, but they don't really feel that they should have democracy here in Pakistan. They are more worried about their own personal interests in the region."

For now, Musharraf looks unassailable. The democratic parties who oppose him are divided. But they are limbering up for a fight.

They plan a conference in London to try to create a united front. If the elections are rigged again, they vow to resort to mass street protests.

Supporters of Pakistan's best-known opposition politician, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, have begun making their feelings known.

Bhutto says she plans to return to Pakistan this year. She risks being jailed on charges of corruption — allegations her supporters say are politically motivated.

Though there seems little immediate prospect of unseating Musharraf, Farhattulah Babar — a senior member of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party — believes the time will come, and soon.

"Who would have though that the Berlin Wall would be dismantled?" Babar asks. "Who would have thought that in South Africa the apartheid would be demolished? Who would have thought the Russians would be defeated in Afghanistan?"

But the Russians were in Afghanistan for a decade. Musharraf has a few years yet to run.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.