Pressure in Pakistan

January 04, 2008

Pakistan's elections commission has put off until Feb. 18 a parliamentary vote that was supposed to take place next week. The idea is to ensure that Pakistan is ready to hold such a vote in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. But does a postponement help or hurt?

President Pervez Musharraf, deeply unpopular, now has an additional six weeks during which he must insist upon his authority. He may have calculated that a wave of sympathy for Ms. Bhutto's party would die down by mid-February, but he has almost nothing to offer as an alternative. There are more and more demands that he resign; will those demands gather strength in the next two months, or will they peter out? Plenty of Pakistanis believe that the postponement is not about preserving national order but about preserving the presidency of Mr. Musharraf.

He has Washington's support because the Bush administration is unable to spot a legitimate successor. This is an understandable policy, on its face, but may pose terrible difficulties down the road. Yes, Pakistan has deeply flawed political parties, beginning with the People's Party of Pakistan, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bhutto family. But, no, acquiescing to Mr. Musharraf's squelching of those parties is not a good way to develop a sound political system. Yes, dropping Mr. Musharraf runs the terrible risk that he might cling to office and ally himself with extremist elements, including those in his own security services. But, no, standing by him to the bitter end could be just as bad, with secular and religious oppositionists driving him out and turning with a vengeance on his American backers.

And of course there's the issue of nuclear weapons. If Pakistan goes off the rails, there will be untold trouble ahead. The question is, how vital is Mr. Musharraf to keeping the country on track?

The answer to that isn't clear now. He controls the army, of course, but the loyalty of ordinary soldiers will go only so far. The United States must be prepared in case the moment comes - in weeks or even days - when it becomes obvious that Mr. Musharraf is more the problem than the solution. It won't be Washington's call to remove him from office, but the administration must be adroit enough to stand out of the way if Pakistanis decide he has to go.

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