Musharraf remakes himself as Pakistan prepares to vote

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The Independent Online

General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who wound up his referendum campaign in Karachi yesterday prior to tomorrow's controversial vote, has had a bruising initiation into political life since launching his bid to win his compatriots' hearts and minds.

When he seized power in a bloodless coup two-and-a-half years ago, the national reaction was one of stoical calm. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for half of its short life since independence and for most people this was merely sober normality after the sickening roller-coaster ride of democracy.

One well-placed military analyst said that General Musharraf was the last person in the world he would have expected to become a military dictator because he had no prior connection to politics and no political axe to grind. He was a soldier's soldier; a former commando; a proactive, hands-on general. The slime and slither and haggle of politics was a million miles from his experience.

But see the transformation today. General Musharraf steps out in starched turbans and dazzling white, high-buttoned sherwani coats while city walls are adorned with oversized murals of him in army uniform, fists raised in triumph.

He no longer confines himself to grim-faced television addresses to the nation or cosy seminars with the nation's movers and shakers. Instead he has thousands of villagers bussed in to attend his rallies, many of whom, it is darkly hinted, have been paid to attend. The difference is startling.

General Musharraf has been forced to repackage himself in this way because the Supreme Court insists that a general election must be held, paving the way for a return to democracy in October.

He has ruled out a return to politics for Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. While the political leaders command real popular support, he accuses both of massive corruption. And he has made it clear that he intends to carry on as President long after the election, to serve out his five-year term at the very least. But his "presidency" was a gift to himself and as things stood, with no popular mandate in which to wrap himself, he foresaw the danger of constant challenges by an elected government. He has sought to forestall this by getting his own victory in first.

The attempt has raised howls of protest from practically all political parties and has even persuaded the oldest enemies in Pakistani politics, the People's Party and the Muslim League, to bury the hatchet.

The newspapers, much freer than they were under the last democratically elected prime minister, Mr Sharif, have been uninhibitedly venomous in their assaults on General Musharraf's ambitions.

At the very end of the campaign, things have started to swing his way. On Saturday the Supreme Court ruled that the referendum was constitutionally valid and yesterday he confirmed his critics' fears when he said that if he won the referendum – and the result is hardly in doubt – he would consider a further five-year term.