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August 14, 2008

HAS the time really come for General (retd) Musharraf to say adieu?

There are rumours that the president may announce his decision as early as during the midnight party on the eve of Independence Day, or perhaps within the next 48 hours.

Interestingly, if some of the hawks around him were to have their way, he would never step down voluntarily — even if this meant the derailing or wrapping up of the entire democratic dispensation.

Although conflicting signals still emanate from the president’s camp, some of the people directly involved in the process say that the mounting pressure of the impeachment lobby, defections and desertions in the ranks of his one-time political allies, and hectic manoeuvring by senior American and British diplomats may soon compel Gen (retd) Musharraf to arrive at a decision. And though some of his self-styled advisers are continuing to tell him to fight it out till the end, a reliable source in the establishment says the president believes that the time has come for him to reassess the situation.

It is not that the president has not tried to take on the coalition government, mainly on the grounds of the self-serving notion that he was synonymous with the progress and prosperity of the country. But after having failed to attract the active support of his former institution, his trusted political allies, and those who were beneficiaries of his benevolence — particularly those in the judiciary — he appeared inclined to ignore the advice of his hawkish friends.

Gen (retd) Musharraf’s current dilemma is that most of his trusted aides of yesteryear, who were ever willing to give him sincere advice, have either been eased out or have withdrawn themselves from the centre-stage, mainly to avoid any unpleasantness. It is now being said that the composition of the president’s current team is such that their individual or collective advice can be described at best as a recipe for disaster.

Who are these last remaining friends and self-styled advisers who want the president not to bow out under pressure? Information gathered by Dawn suggests that the group comprises only a handful of people, many of whom have their own personal interest in his survival as the head of the state.

Two retired brigadiers, two seasoned lawyers who share a last name, a political dropout from the PPP, and a journalist-publisher who boasts of having ghost-written Gen (retd) Musharraf’s memoirs appear to be what is left of the president’s once formidable team of advisers. And this, as he finds himself in the line of fire.

Some say that these are perhaps the only ‘wise men’ the president is left with at this most crucial juncture of his political career, particularly when the governing coalition is determined to impeach him.

This may not be entirely true, as the president is certainly getting some support from a core group of whatever is left of a fast diminishing PML-Q, and of course from Karachi’s all-powerful Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which has not only a strong presence in the Sindh assembly but also undeniable street power in the country’s biggest industrial centre.

Since the start of the crisis most of the president’s advisers have been meeting him almost every day, sometimes more than once, at the President’s Lodge to explore various options for dealing with the situation. A source close to the presidency says that even after getting signals about the lack of support from key quarters, the advisers once again counselled him against stepping down. In fact, at least two of them have been pushing Gen (retd) Musharraf to go for the kill before the elected parliament starts the impeachment process.

Whether or not the president will opt for such a drastic step remains unclear. However, two top government functionaries say that through an emissary, the president was told politely that if he agreed to resign, there would be no public humiliation and he would be given a safe and honourable exit.

There has been no formal response from the president’s side since then, and while some of the top members of the ruling PPP still believe that he may step down before the initiation of impeachment proceedings, Asif Zardari and a few top-ranking government officials have already started discussing counter-actions in case the president opts for a drastic move against the government.

A series of background interviews with senior politicians and officials suggests that the president has become quite jittery and has started to feel like a defeated man. His anger and frustration is based largely on his own created notion: that after having served the country for so long, he has been left with so few friends and supporters. Sources say the president’s frustration was compounded after getting a clear signal from the army’s top command that they would prefer to keep themselves away from what has largely been seen as a political and constitutional battle. Now, the president’s only hope lay in the current Supreme Court -- his own personal creation -- and the kind of support he may get from political allies, particularly the MQM.

Sources say that in all three options were explored for shaking up the system and preventing the coalition government from initiating the process of impeachment.

The first half-hearted attempt to bring in a no-confidence motion against the provincial government in the Sindh assembly fizzled out when Makhdoom Amin Fahim failed to muster the support of more than four or five members. Such a move, potentially with the active support of the MQM and Pir Pagara, would have started the destabilisation process. In the end, Amin Fahim’s son was left with no option but to resign his Sindh cabinet post.

The second and more serious move was to seek the help of the apex court, either to prevent the national parliament from initiating the impeachment process or to support the president in case he used his authority under the Constitution’s Article 58(2) b to pack up the government and the assembly.

Over the past week or so, a provincial governor remained involved in a kind of shuttle-diplomacy, holding talks with the country’s highest adjudicator on behalf of the president. On at least one occasion, he was accompanied by a very senior lawyer and former politician who has remained a very vocal opponent of the current impeachment move. But as luck would have it, the top adjudicator, keeping in mind the strength of the coalition government, expressed his inability to extend all-out support.

The third serious suggestion, which some say is still being considered as an option, was to use the pretext of deteriorating law and order to dissolve the Sindh assembly. This was to be done in the hope of starting a chain reaction. However, one piece of advice being given to the president was that dissolving just the Sindh assembly -- instead of the National Assembly -- could mean adopting a somewhat dangerous approach towards addressing the issue. It was being said that if such a move resulted in protest demonstrations or possible violence, the danger of things getting out of control may become real. This could be seen as a deliberate attempt to draw the army into what is essentially a constitutional battle.

However, those dealing with the crisis situation say that such action also required complete support from the MQM which, though fully backing the president on the political front has remained undecided on the issue of extra-parliamentary action.

Conscious of the seriousness of the situation, some senior officials involved in crisis management believe that a clearer picture may emerge within the next 48 hours. At the same time, however, they are convinced that any move other than the president stepping down voluntarily -- including impeachment proceedings -- could mean a long-drawn out, nasty and highly unpredictable political phase in which anything could happen.

It is largely for this reason that many of the president’s well-wishers have been directly or indirectly advising him to say adieu and step down. Their view is that even if he feels he has done great service to the country over the last eight years or so -- and there are quite a few things that go to his credit -- he would be better off leaving it to history to judge him.