After two and a half years as military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan gingerly stepped into the political arena last night, going on television to tell his people that he will submit himself to a referendum next month to confirm himself in power for another five years.
General Musharraf, who overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in October 1999, has pledged to hold a general election this coming October, with the political parties he shunted aside two years ago back in play.
But last night he said that neither of the former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, would be allowed to return to Pakistan to "plunder the national wealth". They have "no role in Pakistani politics", he declared.
The referendum gambit, rubber stamped by his cabinet earlier in the week, is designed to give the presidency to which he appointed himself a veneer of legitimacy, and to ensure that he continues to hold the whip hand over any ministry voted into power in October.
But these tentative and wary moves have already landed the general in hot water. All the significant political parties oppose the referendum.
Pakistan may be accustomed to military dictatorships, having had military rule for half its independent history, but there comes a point when people begin to bridle at the soldier's steely grip. In Pakistan there is also a history of military rulers submitting to polls believing, with the vanity of the supremely powerful, that they are widely loved. But while they may be tolerated, and even preferred to what went before, none has succeeded in gaining genuine popularity.
Pakistan's first military ruler, Ayub Khan, entered a presidential election in 1964, but succeeded only in uniting the opposition behind a single candidate running against him, the sister of Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. When he emerged as winner the allegations of fix were raucous. It was the beginning of his long decline.
General Zia-ul Haq tried to sanitise his dictatorial rule through a referendum in 1984 but found it impossible to disguise the fact that the turn-out was miserable, no more than 5 or 10 per cent of the electorate.
General Musharraf finds himself going down the same road at the moment when popular hostility to his rule is intensifying. He inherited a desperate economic situation from Nawaz Sharif, but in the eyes of the poor he has only made matters worse by following the dictates of the International Monetary Fund, stripping out subsidies and allowing prices of all utilities to rise.
But General Musharraf's biggest headache is the war on terrorism. After 9 September, he boldly threw his lot in with the US and its allies, and despite fears of widespread revolt among those opposed to that decision, unrest was confined to the marginal fanatics of the religious parties. Meanwhile, his stock in the west rose higher and higher as he successfully depicted himself as the US's most dependable front-line ally.
Since the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl in January, however, all that has changed. The US has grown increasingly sceptical about General Musharraf's ability to contain the jihadi forces within Pakistan's political and military establishment, or to track down the fugitive members of the Taliban and al- Qa'ida who are believed to have streamed into the country following the onset of the allied bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
Hence the joint US-Pakistani operation in Punjab last week, raiding safe houses where al-Qa'ida members were holed up and capturing Abu Zubaidah, the terrorist group's chief of operations. It was the first time that CIA and FBI agents have carried out an operation jointly with Pakistani police.
But such increased cosiness with the US is not cost-free for General Musharraf. Now that he has united the political parties in opposition to the referendum plan, they are making hay with the fact that America is demanding more and more leeway for operations within the country. The US, writes Shafqat Mahmood in The News, "wants the freedom to operate everywhere in Pakistan".
"This development could not have come at a worse time for Musharraf," he continued. Just when his nationalist credentials are so important to him, the Americans are pushing him to look like an American stooge in the eyes of his people." Now General Musharraf is asking his people to show him their support. But as Mr Mahmood points out, "a referendum ... should have more than one possible result." The temptation for the general to try to fix it will be overwhelming.
¿ A Pakistani judge yesterday opened the trial of four men accused in the kidnap-slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, but quickly adjourned the proceedings for a week to give prosecutors time to hand over key evidence supporting the charges.