Musharraf to win vote, needs new allies to survive

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ISLAMABAD, Sep 30 (Reuters) Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf looks set to win a fresh mandate in an October 6 vote, and quit as army chief soon after, but how long he lasts in power rests on whether he can find new political allies, analysts say.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan's transition to greater democracy is being closely watched by the United States and Western nations who have counted on Musharraf's support for their military intervention in Afghanistan and their war against al Qaeda.

Yesterday, the Election Commission rejected rivals' objections to General Musharraf's candidacy, a day after the Supreme Court dismissed challenges to him seeking re-election while still army chief.

Although Musharraf's popularity has slumped in the six months since an ill-advised bid to oust the country's top judge, the ruling coalition's majority should carry him through yesterday's vote in the National Assembly, Senate and provincial assemblies.

''General Musharraf may win the election, but his political future is very uncertain,'' Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst said.

Parliament is due to be dissolved by mid-November for a general election expected by mid-January, and many of the politicians Musharraf brought under his banner after he seized power in a coup eight years ago are expected to lose their seats.

Without a solid political base, analysts say Musharraf's position will be more vulnerable once he carries out a promise to quit the army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half the time since the country's formation 60 years ago.

''Once he takes off his uniform, he will see the centre of power shift towards the new army chief. He will become more vulnerable politically as well as from the military,'' said Talat Masood, a retired general and an analyst.

CREDIBILITY DEFICIT Musharraf must make sure his expected election victory has a stamp of credibility among opposition parties, otherwise the new parliament will challenge his authority.

Supporters of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf overthrew in 1999 and deported on his return from exile on September 10, plan to resign on Tuesday from the assemblies, along with religious parties and smaller allies.

But all eyes are on what self-exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto does.

Her Pakistan People's Party is the single largest opposition party, and while PPP lawmakers won't vote for Musharraf -- they have fielded their own candidate -- their participation will provide the election greater legitimacy.

Musharraf and Bhutto have been in talks over a possible post-election power-sharing deal that could see her become prime minister for a third time, but they have yet to reach agreement.

Bhutto plans to end her eight-year exile and return to Pakistan on October. 18, despite corruption cases against her.

She and Musharraf are both seen as progressive leaders who will try to stop Pakistan sliding into the hands of religious conservatives and fight al Qaeda-backed militants trying to destabilise the country from strongholds in tribal areas along the Afghan border.

But there are doubts about how long two such strong personalities could work together.

LOOKING FOR FRIENDS Newspapers have also suggested that Musharraf is trying to break an Islamist alliance of six parties by bringing onside its largest member.

Led by Fazal-ur-Rehman, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam wields considerable influence in the border regions where the Pakistan army is fighting pro-Taliban tribesmen.

Musharraf has himself to blame for his isolated situation. After seizing power, he marginalised mainstream political parties, thus creating space for his conservative allies and religious parties to prosper and grow.

Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, said Musharraf's time could be up unless he strikes an understanding with Bhutto and Rehman.

''If two big political parties are ready to play ball with him, then there will no serious problem,'' Sethi said.

''It it does not happen and these parties go towards other opposition groups, then it will be very difficult for him to survive.'' REUTERS SG PM1440

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