The military dictatorship in Pakistan says that it has released Benazir Bhutto from house arrest and that it will end the State of Emergency within one month and go to parliamentary elections in mid-February.
Pakistanis have seen military governments make such pledges in the past, only to have them repeatedly broken, with elections postponed for as much as a decade. (In some cases only the death of the leading general has allowed elections finally to be held).
One reason Musharraf’s pledges in this regard may be honored, at least in a surface way, is that he is facing far more public opposition to his coup than he had expected. Most lawyers and judges in the country are on strike, which makes it difficult for government and society to function normally. And while Musharraf stopped the planned Pakistan People’s Party rally at Rawalpindi on Friday, he cannot be assured of always being so successful in blunting popular protests. The waning years of Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s dictatorship in the mid-1980s saw substantial protests.
Then Musharraf is getting heavy pressure from the Europeans and to a lesser extent the Bush administration. The latter doesn’t care very much about democracy, of course, but they do care about the potential for massive turmoil in Pakistan and even revolution. Still, Bush is backing Musharraf heavily in public.
Gary Sick says the situation reminds him of 1978 in Iran, when the US government had put all its eggs in the shah’s basket, and had no plan B when the shah was overthrown.
But actually I think the evidence is that Condi Rice did develop a plan B, and it is called Benazir Bhutto. The US wanted Musharraf to become a civilian president and to allow Benazir to come back as prime minister. The Pakistani Supreme Court threw a wrench into this plan by trying to bar Musharraf from being president. Musharraf then made his coup, derailing the whole Washington plan.
Can the Rice plan be gotten back on track? Has Musharraf’s high-handedness mortally wounded him as a potential civilian president? Will Musharraf really be able to risk giving up any of the power he has seized. Has he put Bhutto in a position where she has to oppose him in order to remain electable? Has her own willingness to compromise with Musharraf made her unelectable already?