The endgame will likely come on Friday, when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto holds a long-planned political rally in the city of Rawalpindi, right next to the capital Islamabad.
Why is this site important? It was a historical place as a site of public protest in Pakistan’s history, particularly Murree Road and the 15,000 seat stadium nearby. This is a military town, and in much of Asia, military presence + popular protest = effective coup. Remember that President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines succeeded in pushing out then-president Joseph Estrada after a series of these demonstrations, whose key moment was the appearance of the Air Force brass at the last rally. This was a clear signal that the military had sided with her, and Estrada left immediately (the Philippine Air Force was a major factor in the ousting of dictator Ferdinand Marcos).
So we can expect that Bhutto may be at least hoping that some brass drop by her rally. Remember how shrewd and tough this lady truly is: she returned to Pakistan only after concluding a power-sharing deal, which promptly went to pot. When a bomb exploded and killed 130 during her welcoming rally, she carefully avoided accusing the government at first. Theh, safely ensconced with her followers, Bhutto wheeled around and strongly implicated parts of the government and demanded international investigation. Then the whole country just happens to fall apart? This is not a stupid woman.
While I don’t expect to see tanks roll into Bhutto’s rally, I do not expect Musharraf to survive Friday in a strong manner. The army is already displeased over firing on fellow citizens in mosques, and with the quagmire in Waziristan. My guesses as to the outcome:
1 (55% chance) – Rally makes Bhutto’s popularity clear. “Power-sharing” deal is reminiscent of Yeltsin-Gorbachev pact after the aborted coup. Musharraf saves some face as nominal military commander, but people under him are largely replaced with those loyal to Bhutto % Co. Nawaz Sharif becomes a high-profile minister.
2 (20% chance) – Protests die down, and Bhutto hangs around as a largely symbolic opposition figure. However, too many Pakistanis are too ticked off for me to take this seriously as a possibility. Plus, Bhutto is too smart — she’s not an amateur playwright or doctor thrust into this role. She’s a former prime minister of a Muslim country who knows how to play the game for keeps.
3 (13% chance) – Musharraf tries to completely lock the country down, and seeks to turn Benazir Bhutto into Pakistan’s version of Aum Sun Suu Kyi. Unlike Burma, however, the military is not very loyal to the current regime. It’s too late for this.
4 (2% chance) – Bhutto is killed. Nawaz Sharif, another opposition leader, emerges as the default choice, and the edifice crumbles around Musharraf’s ears.
What say you?