Islamabad: After a series of political blunders in the last two months, Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is being advised by his political supporters to make a dramatic change of course or risk losing power amid more chaos and bloodshed.
Members of the ruling party, the Pakistani Muslim League, who provide Musharraf’s base of support in Parliament, say nationwide protests since the suspension of the country’s chief justice in March, and violent clashes that left 42 people dead in Karachi on 12 May, have cast a pall over the leadership.
They are encouraging Musharraf to strike a compromise with the Supreme Court justice, who did not shy away from challenges to the government and whose removal has been protested as a threat to the judiciary.
Some party members have also recommended that Musharraf open the elections for the presidency, which are supposed to take place this year, to his exiled political opponents and that he make sure that the polling is free and fair.
The alternative to compromise, party members warn, is a hardline military solution that leads only to greater confrontation.
For the moment, Musharraf seems to be insisting on sticking to his planned course to maintain power rather than seeking conciliation with either chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry or his political rivals, supporters and opponents say.
Last week, the President repeated his insistence that there would be no deal to bring home either of the opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who left the country under a cloud of corruption allegations.
“About their return before elections, no, there is nobody returning before elections,” he told the private, Karachi-based Aaj Television in an interview on 18 May.
But a number of party members say they intend to push their case. Opposition members and some from the ruling party warn that not only is Musharraf’s future at stake, but also the stability of the country, which sits on the front line of American efforts to combat Taliban insurgents and Al-Qaida.
Pakistani troops on Tuesday stormed a suspected Al-Qaeda training camp in a tribal area bordering Afghanistan, killing four foreign rebels, officials said. Soldiers raided the compound at Zargarkhel village in north Waziristan after the militants refused to meet a peace delegation flown in by helicopter and opened fire, military spokesman major general Waheed Arshad said.
The strike came as the US continued to press key ally Musharraf to crush Al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents, who have allegedly regrouped in the rugged frontier area since 2001.
“There are two ways he can go: retreat to the bunker or stop, pause, review, reflect and reverse course... He has to show leadership, magnanimity, and be loyal to the broader objective. The important thing is Pakistan’s future,” said one ruling party member who did not want to be identified.
Not least, the ruling party members, who also face elections this year, have become concerned about their own political fortunes. They acknowledged that both the President and the party have suffered from the public reaction to the chief justice’s removal, which many concede the President did not anticipate.
The President’s opponents and supporters alike now agree that the events of the last few months present the greatest domestic challenge to Musharraf since he seized power in a bloodless coup in October 1999.
“The government’s interest is in lowering the temperature, defusing tension and keeping loyal to the objective of a transparent system that leads to the democratic transfer of power,” said Mushahid Hussain Sayed, general secretary of the ruling party.
“It’s the last thing you would want in an election year,” he added. “One thing after another is piling up, and most of these things are negative.”
Asked about Musharrraf’s growing troubles, a senior state department official reiterated American support for the Pakistani President. “Fundamentally, the direction of the country is right,” the official said. “There is more pressure on extremists. They are moving in the direction of elections.” The case of the Supreme Court justice, he added, “needs to be handled as a judicial matter, and resolved in that way”.