How long can Musharraf stay on?

General Pervez Musharraf’s plan to retain power as Pakistan’s civilian president is still intact despite weeks of jaw-dropping blunders. But insiders say he will not last long, once a new government is elected and his army ties fade. They predict the general’s final posting, following a trail into exile blazed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, will be duke of Knights bridge or king of Dubai.

Musharraf’s decision to call an election on January 8, his imminent resignation as army chief, acquiescence in Sharif’s weekend return, and gradual release of political prisoners have all helped put his pre-crisis plan back on track. Officials say he is now under intense American pressure to take the last, crucial step and lift the state of emergency, as demanded by US special envoy John Negroponte last week.

Only an end to the emergency can give the coming elections necessary credibility (although few expect them to be entirely free from manipulation), they say. And only this will quell mounting alarm in Washington about the lack of political alternatives to Musharraf and semi-hysterical queries about who “lost” nuclear Pakistan.

Pakistani officials suggest a private understanding that the emergency will end soon explains why President George Bush spoke out so strongly in Musharraf’s support after Negroponte departed. To derisive guffaws from Democrats, Bush said the general “truly is somebody who believes in democracy” and who “hasn’t crossed the line”. But so far Bush is sticking to his hired gun.

Despite personal hostility to Musharraf and long lists of preconditions, both Bhutto and Sharif are preparing to participate in the polls. Bhutto said on Sunday her Pakistan People’s party would take part “under protest” as “we don’t want to leave the field open for rivals”. But other calculations are in play.

The Bhutto-Musharraf relationship has deteriorated sharply since her dramatic return to Karachi. Yet despite everything, the pre-crisis mutual agreement brokered by the US is still salvageable. “Musharraf and Bhutto detest each other. They both think of themselves as saviours. Neither is good at sharing power,” a senior official said.

“But this marriage was not made in heaven. It was made in Washington. Benazir does whatever the Americans tell her.” Both leaders were pro-western and relatively secular and liberal in outlook, unlike the conservative Sharif with his strong ties to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s religious parties. And again unlike Bhutto, Sharif is adamant he will not work with Musharraf.

The most likely immediate outcome was a coalition government led by Bhutto as PM, the official said, even though the chances of her working successfully with Musharraf as civilian president were poor in the longer term. “Benazir will make a bid for greater power as PM. The dynamic will be with her. So there’s going to be a big struggle.”

In his recent actions, in the opinion of Pakistan’s “civil society”, Musharraf had simply gone too far, the source said. However hard he now fought to hang on to the presidency, the probability was that, sooner rather than later, it would be prised from his grasp. “His preference will be to hold on to power, to run things himself, as long as he can. That’s partly because he fears the consequences of letting go. But he will never be forgiven for last few weeks.” — The Guardian