Musharraf set for five more years despite questions over election

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The Independent Online

Eight years after he seized power in a military coup and six years after making a deal with the US that enabled him to hold on to that power, General Pervez Musharraf is today poised to secure another five years as Pakistan's leader.

National and regional assemblies are scheduled to vote in a ballot most observers say General Musharraf will comfortably win. However, an element of uncertainty was thrust into proceedings last night when the country's Supreme Court ruled the ballot's outcome cannot officially be recognised until it rules on the eligibility of the military leader's candidacy – a decision it will not take for at least 11 days.

The surprise ruling raised the Alice-in-Wonderland scenario of Mr Musharraf's victory being announced "unofficially" with the prospect of the court then seeking to annul such an outcome if it later decided he was not, after all, permitted to run.

Quite how the court would enforce such a finding is unclear. Though the government claimed it would "honour the decision and ... implement it in letter and spirit", it has ignored previous court rulings that would have proved to be inconvenient. Just last month it brushed aside the court's ruling that Nawaz Sharif should be permitted to return to Pakistan without "hindrance" and instead deported the former prime minister when he tried to return from exile and challenge General Musharraf.

In reality, with a power-sharing arrangement with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, having been secured, General Musharraf's opponents will face an arduous task to derail him if, has expected, he wins today's vote. Prior to the Supreme Court's decision, General Musharraf's efforts to cement another five years as leader had been progressing seamlessly. In the early hours of yesterday, it emerged a deal had been formalised with Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). That opened the way for her to return to political life by quashing corruption charges against her and other politicians. Last night, General Musharraf signed that amnesty, the National Reconciliation Ordinance. Pointedly, it does not apply to Mr Sharif's convictions.

In exchange, Ms Bhutto – who plans to return to Pakistan on 18 October – agreed PPP members of the assemblies would not boycott the vote, as some parliamentarians have vowed to do in an effort to undermine the credibility of General Musharraf's victory.

Talat Hussain, director of current affairs at Aaj TV, said: "Throughout all this talk of a deal, Benazir Bhutto has maintained plausible deniability. She has put a good varnish of altruistic motives. There's been a lot of shadow-boxing that doesn't reflect a true state of affairs. Many of these matters were already settled, and it's been more a matter of fine-tuning."

That deal between General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto was heavily shaped by the US and Britain, with diplomats from both countries involved in a dialogue that has been going on for a year. Indeed, the Bush administration – which, in the aftermath of 9/11 gave General Musharraf the choice of being either "100 per cent with us or 100 per cent against us" – has been among the general's most important supporters.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a political analyst and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, said: "The reason that General Musharraf has managed to carry his army with him is mainly due to American support. The very fact that Washington want him there makes it imperative for the army to accept him."

Yet for all Washington's support, many question whether General Musharraf has delivered on his agreement to sign up to Mr Bush's so-called war on terror and confront extremism inside Pakistan. A Western military official in Pakistan told the Washington Post the country's military was not equipped for counter-terrorism.