Leading article: The desperate act of a weak and rattled president


Occasionally in history, generals scrap constitutions, silence judges, tell the politicians to shut up and get away with it. De Gaulle in the miserable France of 1958, and Pilsudski in the chaotic Poland of 1926, were two; both generals with heroic war records, they capitalised on a near-universal public contempt of the political establishment to seize power, while claiming – not wholly implausibly – to act in the name of " the nation".

Sadly for Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, his latest coup is unlikely to be greeted with similar success, hence the gloom and dismay felt in Western capitals and the apparent indifference on the streets of Islamabad. Few expect any good to come out of an act that seems less motivated by high-minded patriotism than fear for one man's own political future.

Whatever he may say about dark forces threatening Pakistan, everyone knows the general's most burning concerns are the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and the possibility that the Supreme Court might declare his forthcoming candidacy for another presidential term unconstitutional.

By suspending the constitution, the general thereby clothes his eviction of the chief justice with the thinnest veneer of legal respectability. But it reeks of desperate short-termism and is most unlikely to give Musharraf more than a short breathing space.

His closest allies in the West know this. Terrified that Pakistan might collapse or fall into the arms of radical Islamists, begging the question of whose finger might be on Pakistan's nuclear trigger, they have tempered their criticism; fear dictates the mild nature of the rebukes emanating from Washington and London and the faint pleas for the general to restore democracy.

Musharraf's coup – for that is what it is – has, indeed, exposed the flimsy nature of the West's calculations in Pakistan, and the error of trying to shoehorn the general into acting as America's regional policeman.

Far from strengthening him, this constant foreign pressure to "sort out" the problem of Taliban infiltration on the frontier with Afghanistan has only weakened him, and the army, in the eyes of his increasingly unsympathetic fellow countrymen. Fiercely divided on virtually everything else, there is a growing consensus among Pakistanis that they do not want their army to spill its blood tackling problems – especially in Afghanistan – of the West's own making.

The question is: what now? The scenario entertained in Western capitals, that the exiled Benazir Bhutto, on her return would engage the general in a form of political cohabitation, easing him into retirement, now looks more unlikely than ever. It is far from clear that Ms Bhutto has much more popular credibility than the General.

The successful military putchists in history got away with it not only because they looked convincing in their finery but because they had genuine solutions up their sleeves. Musharraf's dilemma is that he has nothing of that kind to offer Pakistan, beyond his own continuation in office. Unable to remain in power for ever, yet unwilling to relinquish it, he unhappily pushes his own country further towards the precipice. Who or what lies over that cliff edge we can't yet see, but it probably isn't the smiling face of Ms Bhutto.

If Pakistan is lost as a friendly state in the future, General Musharraf will have been only partly to blame. A large part of the blame will rest on the West, too, for insisting that Pakistan's rulers treat the West's strategic whims as their only priority, when what we should be doing is pressing for democracy, the setting of a date for elections and an end to pressure on the judiciary. That offers at least a slim hope of a way out of Pakistan's morass. The alternative is a steady descent into chaos.

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