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Even a terrible politician would be better than a general who has lost his way

With Thanks to Shaheryar Azhar's Forum
President Pervez Musharraf Musharraf pays high price for a little time From The Times: September 11, 2007
Bronwen Maddox: World Briefing

By slinging Nawaz Sharif on a plane to Saudi Arabia five hours after the former Prime Minister landed in Islamabad, President Musharraf has bought himself five weeks of peace.

In Musharraf's bid to persuade the current parliament to award him another term as president by the deadline of October 15, he will be spared direct confrontation by Sharif, the leader of one of the two main political parties, whom he deposed in a military coup seven years and 11 months ago.

But other than the physical absence of Sharif, Musharraf has bought himself nothing. Not certain victory in that parliamentary vote (if it ever takes place); many of his supporters have already switched to Sharif's side. Not freedom from challenge; the deportation appears to set Musharraf, for the second time in six months, on a collision course with the Supreme Court, which last month gave Sharif the right to return. And not a better future for Pakistan, the creed that all contenders for its leadership claim to be following. No past politician who is still alive is ideal. The best that can be said is that each held office so briefly that little of the mismanagement and corruption that has been the overriding character of government can be pinned on a single door.

But Britain and the US are right to have got fed up with Musharraf and his brand of military rule, swatting at problem after problem without any strategy, albeit with a welcome bias towards the liberal. Of all the holes in Pakistan's social fabric, the biggest is modern education but the next is lack of political life. Its generals, having delivered few solutions, have become the problem. If there is one country where the US's now-mocked promotion of democracy for its own sake holds good, it is Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif, when he left London on Sunday to mount his triumphant return from exile, did not expect to spend last night in Jeddah. Last week he had dismissed speculation that Musharraf would deport him.

He had reasons for confidence. The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, had ruled that Sharif had the right to come back. It said nothing about whether he could be charged - and indeed, in the chaotic hour or so in which Sharif was on the airport tarmac in Islamabad, he was arrested and charged with corruption. But unless Sharif assented to the deportation it seems unconstitutional.

What now? First, we have to see whether Sharif's "Plan B" – of summoning "big, massive rallies" in his absence – comes off. Secondly, Benazir Bhutto, leader of the other main party, has said that she will decide by Friday whether to return. If Musharraf has a plan behind the Sharif deportation, it might be to buy more time for a deal with Bhutto, backed by the US and Britain. But they had every incentive to reach one before Sharif's return, and failed.

What should other countries do? The aim must be to help Pakistan to construct normal political life, while salvaging the best of Musharraf – the liberalism and the freedom from corruption – and avoiding the patronage, corruption and ineffectiveness of the old parties. Most urgent, they need to help Pakistan to remodel its schools, which have left a generation of its soaring population with madrassas, or less.

Musharraf has won eight years' support from the West by arguing that a good general is better than a bad politician. At this point, even a terrible politician would be better than a general who has lost his way, if only because it would clear the path for future politicians who could be better.

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