Cracks appear in Pak's pro-Musharraf coalition
Islamabad, June 21: Some political allies of Pakistan's military president, Pervez Musharraf, are urging him to drop plans to be re-elected by the sitting parliament and instead call early polls and seek a mandate from new assemblies.
They also say General Musharraf, who is facing a growing crisis over his attempt to dismiss Pakistan's top judge, should quit as army chief before his re-election, as he is supposed to give up the post by the end of 2007 under the constitution.
With a general election due by the turn of the year, Western governments are closely following the fate of Musharraf, who became a key US ally after al Qaeda's 2001 attacks.
Musharraf plans to seek his own re-election in September or October from the national and provincial assemblies before they are dissolved for the general election, though the opposition is expected to mount constitutional challenges.
Kabir Ali Wasti, a vice president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), in a rare public display of dissent within the ruling coalition, predicted a deepening crisis if Musharraf stuck to that plan.
''The popular demand is that he should not seek re-election from the sitting parliament and whenever he seeks vote he should do it after shedding his uniform,'' Wasti told Reuters.
''I am not alone and the only one demanding this. There are others also ... It is a general feeling in the party,'' he added.
A minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said Musharraf should re-think his plans to secure a second term.
''The re-election should be credible in the eyes of the public and the international community ... he needs to respect public sentiment. He should call an early election and get the vote for himself from the new parliament,'' the minister said.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met Musharraf last week, and offered broad support while exhorting him to ensure that forthcoming elections were free and fair.
Having treated Musharraf as a pariah after he came to power in a 1999 coup, Washington realised nuclear-armed Pakistan's support was vital if it was to defeat a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and smash the al Qaeda network.
While valuing Musharraf's contribution in a war against Islamist militant groups, the West has also encouraged him to make Pakistan a working democracy.
Musharraf cobbled together the ruling coalition after seizing power, co-opting the rump of what was left of the party led by Nawaz Sharif the prime minister he ousted, but his real power base is the army, and its top brass issued a strongly worded statement of support on June 1.
The Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam, or PML-Q as it is called to differentiate it from the exiled Sharif's PML-N, has always been riven with internal fault lines.
The cracks became visible after Musharraf suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on March 9 after levelling charges of misconduct, provoking lawyers and opposition parties to launch a countrywide campaign against the president.
Analysts suspect Musharraf's motive for ousting Chaudhry was fear that the judge wouldn't support him in the event of constitutional challenges to his plans for re-election.
While opposition and lawyers groups have been protesting against Musharraf over the past three months, the ruling party has held only a handful of rallies in support of the president.
His strongest support has come from an ally in southern Sindh province, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, but the MQM was tainted by violence in Karachi in May when about 40 people were killed.
Early this month, Musharraf berated allies in the Muslim League for leaving him in the lurch during the crisis.
Some PML leaders say Musharraf should call a meeting of all parties, including those led by exiled former premiers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, to assure them of a level playing field for polls.
''Elections should be free, fair and transparent and their results should be accepted by all Pakistanis, and hence the need for an agreed rules of the game prior to elections,'' said Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, secretary-general of the ruling PML.
Politically isolated, Musharraf is expected to redouble efforts to forge a long talked of alliance with Bhutto, but while the two share liberal inclinations and could form a common front against conservative religious forces, neither trusts the other.
Bhutto would demand a high price, possibly the premiership, and definitely Musharraf's resignation from the army.