'The key issue is what political alliances Gen Musharraf will broker'
Pakistan is moving into a new year that will be critical for the country's future political direction.
The government says everything is on schedule for the re-election of President Pervez Musharraf and general elections by the end of 2007.
Yet Pakistanis are still gripped with severe bouts of uncertainty and few believe the government's assurances.
The unpredictability of what will actually happen is already affecting business confidence, say economists.
Islamic extremist groups, the mainstream Islamic parties and exiled national leaders are more interested in a showdown with Gen Musharraf to curtail his powers, or remove him from office, than an election.
Fortunately for the military, the opposition parties are deeply divided among themselves.
The reason for the uncertainty, that will last all of next year, is that the decision will be made by one man - Gen Musharraf himself - because in Pakistan there is no institutionalised, well-worn democratic succession process and the constitution is a mere piece of paper that can be altered by decree.
The government scenario elaborated to me by leading figures of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) says that next autumn Gen Musharraf will likely go for an endorsement from the present National Assembly and provincial assemblies as president for the next five years.
Rumours of a deal
He will then dissolve parliament, set up a three-month caretaker government that will hold free and fair elections and then go for a second endorsement as president in 2008.
Most PML politicians do not expect him to relinquish his role in the military, in which case he will remain as both army chief and president.
However the decisions all lie with Gen Musharraf and his handful of military advisers rather than the ruling party or the prime minister - hence so much uncertainty.
The key issue is what political alliances Gen Musharraf will broker for the election.
'Islamic groups are looking for a showdown with Gen Musharraf'
After his recent outbursts against extremism and the need for people to vote for moderates, rather than religious extremists, the long-running speculation that the army has struck a deal with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its leader in self-imposed exile, Benazir Bhutto, are rife.
Both sides deny any deal, despite the political buzz.
However Gen Musharraf has made it clear that the return of Benazir Bhutto is out of the question. So too, he says, is the return of the prime minister he deposed, Nawaz Sharif, the exiled leader of another faction of the PML.
So why should the PPP cut a deal when its leader will not be allowed to campaign or stand for elections?
If there is a compromise and a deal with the PPP, it would mean the military breaking of its alliance with the Islamic parties that presently rule the provinces of Balochistan and the North West Frontier.
It is something that many in the US and western Europe are desperate to see happen and would clearly applaud.
The problem is that the PML and its leader Chaudry Shujjat Hussain, in particular, see the PPP as a major threat to their monopoly on power at the centre and in the largest province Punjab.
Moreover the logic of a deal with the PPP would mean that the military would also have to cast their lot with smaller secular Baloch and Pashtun nationalist parties in Balochistan and the NWFP - which the army is loathe to do because they oppose the continuation of military rule.
Again Gen Musharraf will have the last word and it is likely that he will only declare his political alliances at the last moment, thus fuelling continued uncertainty about the future.
The best option for a genuine step forward to democratisation would be for Gen Musharraf to announce that he would stand as a civilian president, that genuinely free and fair elections would be held and the future government would be freely determined on the election outcome.
To gain public confidence he would also need to pledge that the elections would genuinely empower parliament and the next prime minister and that he and the army would take a back seat.
'Speculation is rife that the army has struck a deal with Benazir Bhutto'
That would need concrete assurances such as a pledge to remove over 1,000 army officers who presently occupy key civilian posts in the government, economic institutions, media and the universities.
Thus the polls would be a transformative election moving the country slowly towards full and genuine civilian rule.
After seven years of Gen Musharraf and the military, people are tired of the army and looking for change.
Moreover only a genuine civilian government could begin the attempt to start a reconciliation process with all the alienated, angry elements of society such as the Baloch nationalists and the Pashtun extremists in the tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan.
Is such a transformative election likely?
Gen Musharraf has repeatedly said in the past few months that that Pakistan would fall apart if he was not there to guide it, that a strong hand is needed and there can be only one centre of power - and by that he means the army.
So 2007 will be full of political noise and thunder, talk of deals and conspiracies, but when people do actually go to the polls, many will not be expecting anything much to change.
Here are a selection of your views on this column.
I am astonished to see comments of different persons on this page as they are prefering Army Rule rather than a Democratic Rule.
Fact is this army can never be the solution of problems being faced by Pakistan.I would ask from my brothers and sisters,
How can a single person would be most important than Institutions ?
There is PIN DROP SILENCE in Pakistan Masses and ultimate result of this Silence would be the worst.
I am 30 Year Old and 18 Year of my life spent under Military Rule.
Being a Pakistani Citizen, it is the most frustrating scenario for us whenever we see the Latest Models and Expensive Luxury Army Motorcades being purchased by our Taxes and cruising the roads by Kids of our so called Army Generals and to see the Luxurious Villas and Towns developing by our Generals not by Pakistan Army.
We "Pakistani Nation" are standing in a Dark and Closed Street and no where to run except Democracy.
Pakistani "Judiciary" has been playing the worst role since the emergence of Pakistan, which has strengthened the GENERALS's illegal lust of power. Whenever history of Pakistan would be written, Pakistani Judiciary has Darkest Chapters.
Pakistani Politicians are not playing positive role yet but they are directly answerable to Masses rather than other Institutions. Even the most corrupt politician also has to beg for Vote from his voters on every turn.
Therefore Pakistan need a real Generals Free Democracy and an Independent Parliament with an Independent Prime Minister who is answerable to People of Pakistan not Army Generals.
I 100% agree with Mr. Rashid Comments
Muhammad Farhan, Rawalpindi-Pakistan
I just fail to understand that what objective Ahmed Rashid has in its mind. Above article is yet another absurd article he has written. I think he should seriously think upon reasons as what he would gain from negative views against Pakistan.
Though i used to despise the General, i think he is te right person to rule and govern the islamists and keep them under check....i wonder what would happen if he wasnt there in the current scenario, i guess that's the reason the US is behind him, 'cause they understand the repercussions of having a fanatic ruling such an out-lawed country....
If the army has stuck a secret with Benazir Bhutto, then shame on them. Musharraf should know better than bring to power the corrupt regime of Benazir Bhutto.
Syed Nooman Naqvi, USA
I do not want MMA for next election, MMA failed to do any thing for their people. I belive pakistan need a liberal party that can decrease exterism that was spread my MMA specially Maulvie fazal ul Rehman group. I belive people's party should be given chance to govern the pakistan.
Gul Khan, pakistan
Mr Rashid has told half the story,I will advise him not to give up his day job.he has no real knowladge of International politics.Millions in pakisatn prefer the army... rather then gready Lowlife,corept,money grabing politicians of pakistan.Thats the truth is it not Mr Rashid?
amjad quraishi, uk
somebody save pakistan
Haroon Sadiq, u.s.a
Majority members and activists of Pakistan People¿s Party have been voting for PPP and Benazir Bhutto because of the party anti-military rule, pro-democracy credentials and pro-poor outlook. Any deal with the military, particularly Gen. Musharraf, will make Benazir Bhutto highly unpopular and majority of the PPP activists and supporter will not vote in the coming elections. Benazir Bhutto¿s opportunism has already alienated a vast majority of Jialas. A deal with Gen. Musharraf will be a last nail in the PPP coffin.
Quraysh Khattak, Pakistan
Being basically the same people, I wonder why democratic institutions did not get solidly established in Pakistan as in India. May be it is true that Islam and democracy somehow are not consistent. Your view?
J. Dhar, India
Having lived in Pakistan for over a decade, I have come to realize that Pakistan political system is run by Personality-cults who have roots in country's strong arestocratic society. 'A few people', not the general public, decide what and who is gonna change and what and who is not. There is always talk of changing the people but never of changing the system. The public generally expects miracles from the politicians they vote for.
With religious fundamentalists hitting hard in the region, Islamic (mostly extremist) political groups are very likely to rise.
The only one that I could half live with replacing Musharraf at present is Imran Khan, but even then, It's a question of experience, I would not like to see Pakistan lose it's pursuit of Military Might, Benazir Bhutto & Nawaz Sharif would be very bad for Pakistan as a nation, I would have Musharraf over them any day, they have had their chance and they made a mess of things, Musharraf has had to make some tough decisions but he had to do what was in the interest of Pakistan in the sense of security and progress, he has done more for Pakistans progress then benazir or sharif and i think he can take pakistan further.
Ozman, United Kingdom
Sadly, I do not see any prospects of an end to the military rule. This is only likely after further demise of the country (Balochistan and parts of NWFP).
The military will cut deals with politicians, be it PPP or PML, and will always want to be in control.
With the possibility of a peace deal with India, what else will the Generals do, except to consolidate their position and power internally?
Having said all that, this morally corrupt nation deserves what they have got. The only thing that can be worst than a military government is a government run by the current Islamic parties. God help us if they gain power.
I would like to add that Musharaf is corrupt and insincere person. He only want to extend his stay and he is least bothered about the ordinary people in Pakistan. All perviously accused criminal are in the Mushraf's regime which work 24 hours to make him stay in power so they can remain in power and suck the blood of common people of Pakistan. I wish for a Revolution like French Revolution which will strengthen the country and eleminate the astrocracy and imoral, selfish politician.
Gen. Musharraf is only following in the footsteps of a long line of dictators who consider themselves infalliable. With the west scared into the belief, that the General is the last bastion between extremists and nuclear weapons, why would he step down?
C P Madhusudan, India
Indeed if the General were not here the country would have fallen apart. Before he came into power, Pakistan's foreign reserves were a mere $300 million, equivalent to less than 10 days of imports and now they stand over $12 billion. GDP growth was growing, or should I say was stagnant, at around 2% and now it stands around 7% (of course consumer prices rise whenever ANY economy witnesses growth). Pakistan needs economic stability and an era of high growth and prosperity rather than alliances with other Muslims countries which are NO good for even their own economic regions. Musharraf should stick around for another couple of years and hand over to a young, energetic, educated and able person, likes of who are not in the horizon yet.
Usman Sheikh, UK
General Musharraf and his coterie of yes-men are only in power because they are a satellite of the Bush administration. There is little support for an authoritarian installed to look out for American interests in the region. Increasingly, people have become fed up living in an Orwellian society that sacrifices their freedom, autonomy and rights at the altar of American intersts. The human rights record of this 'enlightened' and 'moderate' dictatorship is absymal as more than 200 individuals opposed to the regime have mysteriously dissappeared at the hands of intelligence agencies.
yes it is unfortunate for the people of Pakistan that since creation of this country people have been deprived of genuine civilian rule and there seems to be no ray at the end of the tunnel due to the self interests of its despotic army and civilian rulers.As always real sufferers are the poor, down-trodden lower and middle class of the country as political instability in the country is greatly hampering economic prosperity and stability.
Muhammad Farooq, Pakistan
Probably for the very first time in his life Rashid has writen a balanced article. If Musharraf chose to stand for election as a civilian, he would win hands down. Both Bhuto and Sharif were corrupt. I am confident that Musharraf will facilitate transition to genuine democracy eventually. He is the best thing that happened to Pakistan since it's creation
Sharafat Ali Bandukwala, UK
I think the year 2007 will be the same as previous years. Given the recent trend, I predict that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif will not return to Pakistan, and the ruling PML (Q) will again dominate the assemblies. I also predict the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) will make landmark gains all over Pakistan. It will be business as usual.
Navaid Hussain, USA
Mr.Rashid is right that Pakistan needs fair elections, without Army manipulation,but this will not occur as Musharraf will never get elected without this.
We are tired of corrupt Army rule, and want to see a established democratic syste, allowed to develop, without Army manipulation.
Ali Khan, Pakistan
Ahmed Rashid has once again showed his ignorance, immaturity and biasedness against Musharraf. I do not agree that people are tired of Musharraf after 7 years and want for change. Instead I hope and wish that he continue as long as he can and continue to move Pakistan in right direction.
Faisal Ali, London, UK
I see Musharraf as a far better alternative than Benazir or Nawaz. As a matter of fact, I think he's managed the country better than any other in recent times. I can only imagine what kind of pressure he was under through his presidency but he must leave office and give some one else a chance (hopefully a fresh, young politician and not the thugs mentioned above). Incidently I would like to point out that Altaf Hussain also needs to be brought to justice. He should be made to pay for the lives or Karachiites in the 90s. Why is he living free in Britain?
Sufyan Khan, Pakistan