Leading article: Musharraf talks of democracy – but his real goal is hanging on to power

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The Independent Online

The purpose of Pervez Musharraf's European tour this week has been plain for all to see. The Pakistani President wants to soothe his international allies in the wake of his declaration of a state of emergency, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the intensification of the conflict with Islamist militants in Pakistan's tribal regions.

On Monday, Mr Musharraf was in Brussels to reassure the European Parliament that he is in control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. On Thursday, he addressed world leaders at the economic forum in Davos, promising that national assembly elections next month would be free, fair and transparent. Yesterday, the President arrived in Britain, where he plans to hold talks with Gordon Brown.

But Mr Musharraf's message has not been entirely reassuring. In Davos, he criticised those who would impose "unrealistic Western perceptions of democracy and human rights" and cited the threat of Islamist militancy as a reason for Pakistan's lethargic progress towards these goals.

Yet how just how strong is the President's commitment to taking on religious fanatics in Pakistan? Last November, when he imposed a state of emergency, he did not use it to go after the Islamists of the tribal regions. Instead, he locked up his political opponents, sacked the Supreme Court chief justice, muzzled the media and delayed the elections. The state of emergency has been lifted and the independent Pakistani television station Geo TV resumed broadcasting this week. But prominent judges and lawyers remain under house arrest. It is hard to see how free elections can take place in such a repressive atmosphere.

Mr Musharraf claims he removed Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, because he was "meddling in political affairs". But one does not have to look too far to discover a more plausible explanation. If there is a challenge to the result of the election it will be decided by the Supreme Court. The President is evidently taking no chances of a decision going against his interests. Mr Musharraf's desire to resist the Talibanisation of Pakistan is no doubt genuine. But a higher priority for this President is hanging on to office.

However, this week also raised serious doubts about whether he could pull it off. Mr Musharraf has no political allies outside his narrow coalition. His relations with the Pakistani People's Party have been shattered by the assassination of Ms Bhutto, with many of its supporters accusing him of failing to provide sufficient protection for their murdered leader.

National opinion polls show that a majority of Pakistanis want Mr Musharraf to step down immediately. His relinquishing of his role as head of the army last year has failed to buy him any domestic credit.

Even more ominously for Mr Musharraf, his power base in the services may be crumbling. One hundred retired military officers signed a statement this week describing Mr Musharraf as an embarrassment and calling for his resignation. The former head of Pakistan's intelligence services, Masood Sharif, joined the demands for him to step down yesterday. Mr Musharraf can probably live with enraged lawyers, but to lose the support of the military and intelligence establishment would be fatal to his ambitions.

The fact he has left the country at such a sensitive time could be interpreted as confidence on President Musharraf's part. But it could also be seen as carelessness. Events are moving fast in Pakistan. Mr Musharraf began this tour intending to calm foreign nerves. By the time he returns home, he is likely to be more interested in simple survival.