Right after Musharraf took power I remember reading someone's opinion that Musharraf was a brilliant tactician and a lousy strategist. The writer was using the Kargil affair as an example when Kashmiri jihadis backed by Pakistani paramilitary forces took over high points on the Indian side of the Line of Control in Kashmir. The move was arguably brilliant from a tactical point of view and absolutely disastrous strategically. We have seen some the strategist Musharraf and his bungling for a while. Recently, the tactician has come to fore. And whatever you think of the outcome it is hard not to feel some respect for the tactician.
Starting on March 9th with the attempt to fire the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and continuing with the May 12th killings of protesters by thugs from a party aligned to him it seemed that Musharraf's career was rapidly spiraling down the toilet. The leaders of both the major parties Sharif and Bhutto were flexing their muscle. The supreme court had clearly shown that it could not be relied on to rubber stamp the government's decision, and the extremists had declared war and were succesfully resisting the army. Now, even though Musharraf's plan can still easily go awry: there are several petitions before the supreme court challenging the legality of Musharraf's candidacy, Musharraf's position is substantially better than anyone could have predicted just a few weeks ago.
He has neutralized the political opposition by first cutting a deal with the more powerful of his two opponents Benazir Bhutto, and then obtaining US backing to sideline Sharif. (The trigger for the latter was pulled by the Saudis but the Saudis are not known for making such publicly intrusive moves without US - dare I say it- instruction). The manner in which Sharif was sidelined was in itself a demonstration of Musharraf's ability to gauge the mood of the public.
Sharif had not been a popular politician when he was overthrown by Musharraf, therefore, it was easy to control any possible public demonstrations. Most of the leadership of his party who could have organized demonstrations were arrested prior to his arrival. This, by itself, would not have stopped popular demonstrations if Sharif had been - well - popular. But he was not and his re-exile only served to emphasize this fact, and in some sense de-legitimize not only his posturing as the champion of democracy but the idea of democracy in Pakistan itself. If it had been Benazir Bhutto who had been coming back the situation probably would have been much different. Her party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) comes close as any party in Pakistan to being a political party. But, Benazir Bhutto's priorities did not include a people power revolution. For her Musharraf used a different lever - the various corruption cases against her. And today the Government ofPakistan has announced that the corruption cases against Ms. Bhutto have been dropped. This now accomplishes two things. Her support for Musharraf during next weeks election and nullification of her status as a champion for democracy.
It seems for now, barring some unforeseen action by the Supreme Court Musharraf will continue as the President of Pakistan. And what does that mean for democracy in Pakistan. Unfortunately very little. More on this later