November 8, 2007

Musharraf Retreats, Sets Election Date

Pervez Musharraf responded to pressure from the US by formally setting a new election date for parliamentary elections, signaling a short run for his emergency rule. This ends a great deal of confusing and contradictory statements by his ministers, who had alternately assured people that the elections would be held as scheduled and called into question whether they could be held at all in the present political climate. That climate worsened overnight as Musharraf began rounding up supporters of Benazir Bhutto:

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has decided that parliamentary elections will be held by February 15 and reiterated plans to step down as head of the Army, partial concessions to the pressure building on him from Washington and inside Pakistan since he declared a state of emergency over the weekend.

However the embattled president still seemed headed for direct confrontation with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who said today's announcements would not dissuade her from a mass rally planned for Friday in Rawalpindi. Authorities rounded up hundreds of members of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party in overnight raids -- the first time that party activists have been targeted since the emergency was declared.

At a news conference in Islamabad, Bhutto said that neither Musharraf's announcement nor the government's crackdown against her party would deter the protest. She called on all Pakistanis to attend, regardless of their party.

The announcement did not mollify Bhutto, who at first complained that no specific date for the election was given. When later the Musharraf government specified February 15th as the date, she demanded a specific date for Musharraf to resign as Army chief of staff. Musharraf says he cannot do that until confirmed as President by the Supreme Court, which just lost several of its members. His new oath of office takes place on November 15th, a week from today, and the expectation is that the new Court will approve his earlier election.

Analysts had expected Bhutto to play along with Musharraf in hopes of keeping the military from splitting and further destabilizing an already chaotic situation. If Bhutto sends hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest, some worry that the military will not comply with any orders to disperse them -- or even worse, some units may balk while others obey. The dangers will multiply in Pakistan if the military command divides on itself, or if junior officers split with senior commanders. The military will do whatever it takes to avoid that, and that could include sacrificing Musharraf to buy stability.

Musharraf tested the waters after his emergency declaration and found them uncomfortably hot. He needs to pay heed to that temperature and hasten the end of the emergency decree, or at least find some way to accommodate Bhutto. He needs to follow through on his promise to end his term as head of the Army to give Bhutto a victory to maintain her credibility. George Bush tried to tell him that yesterday; let's hope he listened.


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