Pakistan's President Is Feeling the Heat Before Elections

There's a popular joke quietly making the rounds here:

President Pervez Musharraf is getting ready for bed one evening, and his wife is feeling romantic.

"Honey," she says gently, "why don't you take off your uniform?"

The general explodes in a rage: "Not you, too!"

Feeling the Heat

With Pakistan set to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in the coming year, Musharraf feels the heat to resign as commander in chief before the campaigning kicks off.

The president insists that he can remain in uniform and still mount a free and fair election, even while he campaigns for re-election.

In Pakistan, where the military is notorious for meddling in politics, few agree.

During her brief visit in June, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the world wanted to see "free and fair elections" in 2007 here, prompting a snippy response from Pakistan's foreign ministry.

"On the democratic processes in Pakistan, we do not require advice from outside," it stated, belying the fact that Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, was the fourth military chief here to do so.

The two major opposition parties have called for an interim government to take power ahead of the polls.

The religious parties have threatened to boycott them altogether, if Musharraf remains at the helm.

The latest shot came from a prestigious grouping of retired generals, diplomats, academics and ex-intelligence chiefs who had told Musharraf that it was time to disengage the military in politics.

Democracy will only be authentic, their letter said, when there is a "real separation" of powers.

Musharraf might be forgiven for seeming too preoccupied to bother with democracy. These days it seems there's trouble everywhere he turns.

Troubling Trends

He's stationed 70,000 Pakistani soldiers in the restive tribal belt, but that hasn't stopped militants loyal to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden from taking control of four of its seven districts.

They've imposed their rigid brand of Sharia Law: holding public executions, forcing men to grow beards, and openly recruiting soldiers to fight U.S. troops next door in Afghanistan, where suicide attacks and roadside bombs have become an almost daily occurrence.

An additional 40,000 or so Pakistani troops are tied down in western Baluchistan, fighting a separate rebellion by ethnic Baluch tribesmen.

Then there's archrival India to the east, still bristling after a terrorist attack on the Mumbai rail network that killed more than 200.

If that isn't enough, Pakistan's stock market has crashed, monsoons have flooded major cities, and power shortages have thousands rioting on the streets of southern Karachi.

"I predict tremendous instability in the coming year," one Western diplomat said. "And there will be more violence."

Running Out of Time

Musharraf, a former commando, is no stranger to tough situations.

He's survived three assassination attempts, and steered Pakistan through the delicate post-Sept. 11, 2001, period. Some, though, are betting he may not be so lucky this time.

"It's clear Musharraf plans to stay around past 2007," another diplomat said. "But he's got a h-- balancing act ahead if that's going to happen."

Sources say the ISI, Pakistan's powerful spy agency, has quietly sent emissaries to meet the exiled former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Is this another case of military meddling?

Or are we seeing Pakistan's spy agency -- often described as a "state within a state" -- planning for the future?

"In Pakistan, everyone always hedges their bets," a senior diplomat stationed here said. "You never know if there is a conspiracy on, of if they are just playing both sides off each other."