THE story of Pervez Musharraf’s rise and fall has been a long and rather sad one. A skilful and decent professional soldier, he took power in 1999 amid chaos caused by corrupt and incompetent politicians, came to like the stuff and clung on to it far too long. A good friend to the West in the fight against al-Qaeda, he became a liability as he stalled on the promised return to democracy and his countrymen turned against him. Now the story seems to be nearing its end.
For the government elected in February, which is seeking to impeach Mr Musharraf, this is both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that, once Mr Musharraf has gone and it has no common hatred to unite its disparate parts, it descends into feuding and paralysis. The opportunity is to transcend its preoccupation with president and to start tackling the two huge problems Pakistan faces: the spread of Islamist militancy and a fast-sinking economy.
First, though, Mr Musharraf should go. He is already much diminished in power since he sloughed off the “second skin” of his army chief’s uniform last year and became a president in mufti. His term finished last year. He claims to be a democrat, and it is clear his people want him out. To bestow a new term on himself he flouted the spirit and possibly the letter of the constitution by getting the outgoing parliament to re-elect him. When the new parliament was elected in February, his supporters were trounced—not just because of sympathy for their opponents after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, but also because he is so unpopular.
His chances of hanging on are, anyway, small. He could try to fight impeachment in parliament, by cajoling venal politicians there. He could challenge it in the courts. Worst, he could resort to his presidential powers to declare a state of emergency. That would be, in effect, another coup by a man who took power in one and sustained himself by declaring a state of emergency last November. It is, however, unlikely to happen. Mr Musharraf is no longer army chief, and his successor, though his nominee, has so far shown creditably little inclination to leave the barracks. It is in the interests of both the country and the armed forces that the soldiers should stay there. Previous civilian administrations have been corrupt and inept, but so has the army rule that has routinely supplanted them. For Pakistan to break this vicious circle, it needs an army that renounces coups, come what may.
The politicians also need to avoid repeating past mistakes. The coalition government is led by Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, and Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Mr Musharraf overthrew in 1999. Understandably, they have focused on getting rid of, and punishing, the president. But they should allow him to leave with as much dignity as he can salvage. Resignation would be humiliation enough. Allegations that he has embezzled huge amounts of American aid need to be investigated. But Messrs Zardari and Sharif need to abjure the backward-looking score-settling and forward-looking nest-lining that have characterised previous Bhutto and Sharif regimes, put aside their mutual loathing and work together to fight extremism and repair the economy.
The Taliban and the economy, stupid
The threat posed by the “Pakistani Taliban”, both in the tribal areas that blur into Afghanistan, and in Pakistan itself, is mounting. Fighting this week alone has claimed some 300 lives. The struggle against the extremists has been unpopular in Pakistan. It is seen as America’s, Afghanistan’s and Mr Musharraf’s war. Politicians have therefore tended to play down its importance. But Pakistanis are not, by and large, religious extremists. Defeating Pakistan’s version of the Taliban is in the interests not just of the West but also of the country’s moderate majority.
The other priority must be the deteriorating economy. Mr Musharraf made much of his governments’ alleged economic competence. But despite the billions of dollars of American aid that have poured into the country, the Asian Development Bank reported last year that its poorest people were worse off than they were a decade earlier, before Mr Musharraf took over. Uniquely in Asia, Pakistan had seen a slight rise in the number of people living on less than the equivalent of a dollar a day. In the past year the sharp increase in food and fuel prices has made their lot even harder. Annual inflation is now running at 25%. Economic hardship is feeding extremism. Pakistan’s politicians have more important things to do than settle old scores.
7 months ago