Temporising with the dictator

The only explanation for President Pervez Musharraf’s relentless tightening of his emergency rule is continued United States support for him. Since the November 3 emergency, the Pakistan ruler has shown he can go any distance to silence the opposition. First, there was the amendment to the Army Act empowering military courts to court-martial civilians. Then, evidently at his bidding, the Dubai authorities ordered the closure of two private television channels, Geo and ARY One, headquartered in the emirate. After being banned in Pakistan, the channels continued to broadcast their programmes over satellite from what they thought was an offshore safe haven, but they reckoned without the powerful nexus between non-democratic rulers. It requires a suspension of disbelief to accept General Musharraf’s contention that with all this, the January parliamentary elections will be free and fair. If Pakistanis believed that “the world’s oldest democracy” would come to their rescue, they did not read history right. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said he gave a “strong” message to General Musharraf that he must lift the emergency, step down as army chief, release all political prisoners, remove restrictions on the media, and hold free and fair elections. But did he ask him to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and the other judges of the Supreme Court against whom the emergency was primarily directed? That question goes to the heart of the matter — the legitimacy of the military ruler’s new presidential term. It does seem that the U.S. has not stopped believing that its interests are best served by his continuance in power.

That Mr. Negroponte also urged Pakistan’s “moderates” — read General Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto — to come together gives further indication of what the Bush administration wants. If the general looked distinctly vulnerable in the last few days, it was because the Pakistan People’s Party leader has all but crossed over to the opposition side, declaring an end to negotiations with him and demanding that he step down as President and army chief. This has enabled opposition parties to think, for the first time, of a joint campaign against him, including a possible boycott of the January parliamentary elections. But there is still a question mark over Ms Bhutto’s real intentions. Should she now somersault back to the general’s camp, she will be betraying the people of Pakistan. It is time the U.S. and Ms Bhutto understood how deeply unpopular the military dictator is in Pakistan. Keeping him propped up can only exacerbate the country’s problems and put them on the wrong side of any sensible solution — which can only lie in finding him an early exit strategy.

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