The stereotype of military rulers is usually one of dictatorial generals suppressing all political opposition through brutal means. But the benign image of Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, breaks that stereotypical mold. However, after years of military rule and with elections looming, Mr. Musharraf's image has suffered as of late, putting both Pakistan and the United States in an awkward position.

When President Bush went to Pakistan one year ago, he said Islamabad's cooperation with U.S.-led anti-terrorist efforts was not the only item on the agenda of his talks with President Musharraf.

"The elections scheduled for 2007 are a great opportunity for Pakistan. The president [of Pakistan] understands these elections need to be open and honest. America will continue working with Pakistan to lay the foundations of democracy," Bush said. 

The term of the current parliament ends in November of this year, and elections will have to be held within 90 days thereafter. President Musharraf's own term is up just before the parliament's term expires and there are signs he wants to continue in power.

Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst now at the Middle East Institute, says the United States desperately needs a fair election from its most critical anti-terrorist ally. "The United States needs a legitimate election because it would be in a very difficult position if it had to defend Musharraf and the results of that election when it was transparently not a clean election."

The president of Pakistan is chosen by a kind of electoral college made up of the national and provincial assemblies. General Musharraf and his aides say the constitution allows the president to be chosen by the current assemblies, where he would be virtually assured of another five-year term.

But Mr. Musharraf's image has suffered as of late. A recent State Department human rights report labeled Pakistan's human rights record "poor", and noted there had been an increase in disappearances of activists and political opponents.

And on March 9, General Musharraf abruptly suspended Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry as chief justice of the Supreme Court, prompting violent public demonstrations by lawyers. Reasons for his removal are not clear, but many analysts believe it was because he pressed for information on people who have allegedly been secretly detained by intelligence agencies.

A recent State Department Human Rights report notes that the last parliamentary elections in 2002 were "deeply flawed."

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who lives in exile in Dubai, says she is not hopeful that the new elections will be any better. "Unfortunately, at present I do not have much confidence in the next elections being fair because the last elections of 2002 were not fair. And for me, these elections are not about whether I can contest for prime minister. These elections are about the future direction of Pakistan," says Bhutto.

Bhutto and another former prime minister and political rival, Nawaz Sharif, were both barred from the 2002 polls. Bhutto has recently been very active abroad, making speeches, writing opinion pieces in newspapers and trying to meet political leaders wherever she goes. But both she and Sharif face charges of corruption in Pakistan, and Pervez Musharraf has said either would be arrested if they return. Both have proclaimed their innocence. Nevertheless, Bhutto says she will go back.

William Richter, a South Asia political specialist at Kansas State University, says both Bhutto and Sharif are too tainted to have much credibility. "Each can claim that the military or other forces manipulated public opinion. But I think there is enough example of corruption in each of these instances to say that they were their own worst enemies." He adds, "I'm not particularly optimistic that if either Benazir or Nawaz should come back into power anytime in the foreseeable future there would be that much better a prescription for Pakistani democracy."

Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says there are not many fresh alternatives to the same faces that have dominated Pakistani politics since the 1990s. She says that Bhutto, Sharif and President Musharraf take up just about all the available political space in Pakistan, shutting out any new political aspirants. 

"Just when they think it might be safe to poke their heads out, the international community begins meeting with Benazir; Musharraf starts meeting with Benazir. And so what would be really helpful is some sort of declared statement that these people, these traditional leaders, are simply irrelevant; people are not going to deal with them anymore. And that would perhaps overcome some of the collective action problem for those people who would like to see a different sort of political arrangement develop in Pakistan," says Christine Fair. 

Analysts say Pervez Musharraf has managed to blunt criticism of his rule, especially from the West, by portraying his administration as the only thing preventing the fall of Pakistan, along with its nuclear arsenal, to Islamic radicals.

Publicly, the Bush administration continues to praise Mr. Musharraf's efforts to root out terrorist sanctuaries along border from where Taleban and al-Qaida fighters launch raids on U.S. and NATO forces, but says he could do more. But some members of Congress are agitating to make aid to Pakistan conditional on tougher anti-terrorist measures by the Musharraf government. Bush administration officials say such conditions would be "counterproductive."

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.