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South Asian Analysts Say Pakistan Has Brief Opportunity to Restore Democracy

Protests are continuing in Pakistan following President Pervez Musharraf's decision to suspend the constitution and declare a state of emergency. South Asian analysts say there is a small window of opportunity for the Pakistani government to reverse course, get back on the road to democracy, and hold nationwide elections early next year. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Washington.

President Bush and other western leaders are urging President Musharraf to resign as army chief and hold crucial parliamentary elections in January, as originally scheduled.

General Musharraf's cabinet met Tuesday to discuss the timetable, but Pakistani officials say no decision was made on whether to postpone the ballot.

Daniel Markey, a senior fellow and South Asian specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, says there is still time for General Musharraf to restore the constitution and lift the state of emergency.

"The hope is that we can still get to elections in a January or February time frame, but that is going to take a Herculean effort on everyone's part to roll back this emergency rule and get back to where we were before that and move along in a steady process in that direction. That hope is getting slimmer every day that we don't actually take concrete steps to get there," he said.

U.S. officials have begun their review of aid to Pakistan to see if Islamabad has violated any U.S. laws or rules that would require Washington to suspend financial assistance.

The United States has given Pakistan nearly $10 billion since 2001, mostly to support the country's military.

Wendy Chamberlin, the President of the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, says the Bush administration should be selective if a decision is made to cut assistance. "We should review our aid architecture, but we should only cut aid that has no impact on the people of Pakistan or on counter-terrorism efforts. I would increase aid, in fact, for educational exchanges and for exchanges with the Pakistani military officers. I would cut aid for the big-ticket weapon systems items that Musharraf likes to showcase," she said.

General Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, suspended the constitution ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on whether his recent re-election as president was legal.

Critics say Mr. Musharraf was making a list-ditch effort to cling to power when he imposed emergency measures, although he says his primary goal was to help fight a growing militant threat to Pakistan.

Following the emergency declaration, General Musharraf ousted independent judges, granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush dissent and shut down privately owned television news channels.

Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations says the Bush administration should demand specific timetables for the restoration of democratic institutions. "From my point of view, the thing that we should be pushing for is a timetable whereby, this day, some of the prisoners will be released. By this day, we will get all of the media back up and running. By this day, the election commission will have a plan for holding free and fair elections. By this day, we will actually, in fact, have public debates and a capacity for the political parties to participate in getting ready for elections. If we do not see anything like that, there is no way in ten weeks we are going to have elections and then we are really going to have a problem," he said.

While lawyers, journalists and some human rights groups have demonstrated against Mr. Musharraf's actions, the country's main political parties have remained relatively quiet.

The president's most serious challenger, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has not been arrested and so far has been free to travel around the country. She has criticized the president's emergency declaration, but has not called on members of her Pakistan Peoples Party to protest in the streets.

Former Ambassador Chamberlin says Ms. Bhutto and General Musharraf could still forge a political alliance. "Benazir Bhutto is and has been the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party. It is the largest party in Pakistan. It represents many people from the rural areas of Sindh and Punjab. It will be an important party in any election to put together a coalition for selection of the prime minister and later the president. That is why he needs to talk to her," she said.

Analysts say, at least for the short run, Ms. Bhutto is likely to work with Mr. Musharraf's government in an effort to restore a timetable for elections.

They say Ms. Bhutto fears the possibility of massive street protests, because it is not currently in her interest to further destabilize the country.