- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

As Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf makes his strides toward peace with India, he is being vigorously challenged by an unlikely contingent: the country’s mainstream political parties. This opposition to Gen. Musharraf manifested in heckles and jeers one week ago, during the president’s first address to Parliament. The heckling easily could be dismissed as cynical posturing by the marginalized parties — but that would be a mistake. The hostility between Gen. Musharraf and these parties is worrisome, when coupled with an escalating extremist threat and an increasingly defiant Islamic party coalition.

“Go Musharraf go” was one of the chants the president encountered at Parliament, along with “stranger in the house” and “down with dictatorship.” If the animosity in Parliament is even partly reflective of the sentiment on the streets in Pakistan, then the president, and indeed the United States, could be facing quite a problem in Pakistan. Gen. Musharraf can’t rule effectively if a divide between him and the Pakistani people widens.

Given the current political dynamics, the coalition of Islamic parties (MMA) are poised to benefit handsomely from any political crisis, thanks, in part, to the boost Gen. Musharraf gave to them in the 2002 election. The president gave the MMA a boost in that election, to sideline the parties of Benazir Bhutto (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) — who are both living in what they call political exile.

The central issue igniting most of the heated rhetoric relates to the disputed region of Kashmir, and how Gen. Musharraf will deal with the issue in upcoming talks with Indian officials.

The most strident criticism of Pakistan’s rapprochement with India is coming from the PML-N, whose party chairman, Raja Zafarul Haq, accused Gen. Musharraf of undermining the right of the Kashmiri people to decide their status through a referendum, as outlined in a U.N. resolution. The MMA has made similar comments.

The PPP, however, has been much more constructive in its criticism. The party, and indeed Benazir Bhutto herself, have taken the political risk of supporting the peace effort of Gen. Musharraf, while calling on the president to give the legislature and the Pakistani people some ability to direct the effort.

Gen. Musharraf should heed this tepid support from the PPP and recognize the shifting political dynamics. The president’s ideological disconnect with Islamic parties makes a long-term alliance untenable. Gen. Musharraf’s goals are much more in line with the PPP, and even the PML-N, which attempted a breakthrough with India in 1999, only to be thwarted by Gen. Musharraf’s military assault on India.

These parties, feeling weakened, would likely reach a working compromise with their former rival if Gen. Musharraf were to grant them a more even political playing field. Gen. Musharraf has carefully constructed his labyrinthine ties with the MMA, but if he fails to expand his political support, he may just outwit himself.

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