Musharraf defends democratic aims ahead of US talks

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The Independent Online

Pakistan's military leader President Pervez Musharraf, who declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution two weeks ago, yesterday claimed he had helped jump-start democracy in Pakistan.

As he swore in a caretaker government, a move towards parliamentary elections in January, General Musharraf defended his eight-year record in office, since he seized power in a coup in 1999. "I take pride in the fact that, being a man in uniform, I have actually introduced the essence of democracy in Pakistan – whether anyone believes it or not," said the sombre-looking general.

General Musharraf is today scheduled to meet with the US envoy, John Negroponte, who will deliver a demand from Washington that the general end the state of emergency, free political prisoners and hold a fair election. He has made some concessions already – freeing the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto from house arrest, for instance, and allowing a number of private television channels back on the air – but the Bush administration will demand that more be done.

"Our message is that we want to work with the government and people of Pakistan and the political actors in Pakistan to put the political process back on track as soon as possible," said Mr Negroponte, the deputy Secretary of State, on route to Pakistan.

Having long considered General Musharraf a vital ally in its so-called war on terror, the Bush administration now appears to be considering putting its support behind an alternative leader. Increasing numbers of officials in Washington believe that one way or another, General Musharraf's days as leader of Pakistan are numbered.

Such a view has been cemented further by the imposition of the state of emergency and the apparent breakdown of a power-sharing deal between the general and Ms Bhutto, the head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), that the US and UK had been working on for more than two years.

Ms Bhutto this week ruled out working with the general in a future government. "Do we want to deny this nation its true legitimate leadership and make way ... for extremist forces?" she said yesterday after having been released from house arrest.

Last night, Mr Negroponte spoke to Ms Bhutto about the situation in the country in the highest-level US contact with PPP leader since the state of emergency.

The Pakistani National Assembly, which critics say was a pro-Musharraf rubber stamp, completed its term on Thursday. General Musharraf swore in an ally as the caretaker prime minister – the Senate chairman, Mohammadmian Soomro – and a 24-member cabinet packed with loyalists to oversee the election. But Ms Bhutto said the caretaker administration was an extension of the ruling party: "We don't accept it," she added. She said that the opposition will meet next week over whether to boycott the elections. She has also said she will work with other opposition leaders, including another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

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