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Running from Musharraf

How times change the man. Pakistan’s embattled president, Pervez Musharraf, once declared, “I am not at all a politician. I don’t think I’m cut out for politics.” Eight years after seizing power and exiling his main civilian opponents, the general is moving heaven and earth to hold on to political office.

Though he took power in a bloodless coup, there was little doubt about his popularity at the time. The public had tired of a civilian regime marked by corruption and economic chaos. Musharraf’s personal frankness and integrity appealed to the street and earned him de facto legitimacy.

The general, who offered the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, as his model, also seemed to represent a vision for his country that combined economic growth with support for secularizing impulses. But, given his unwillingness to seek support for his regime and his policies from the ballot box, Musharraf succeeded in undermining both. Over the years, he rigged referendums, browbeat the judiciary, and asked Islamic parties for support to shore up his government. A president’s modernizing vision degenerated into a dictator’s power-driven myopia.

Musharraf admitted on television this year, “Yes, my popularity has been reduced.” Yet he clearly failed to comprehend that this was not just about approval ratings. The political core of his regime had become hollow.