( Washington Post ) - When he grabbed power in a military coup eight years ago, then-Gen. Pervez Musharraf was cheered here for rescuing Pakistan from corrupt and incompetent politicians who had forestalled democracy and dragged the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Surveys showed an astonishing 70 percent of Pakistanis supported the military's overthrow of the elected government.
"The armed forces have no intention of staying in charge any longer than absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish in Pakistan," Musharraf declared in a televised address shortly after seizing power. "This is not martial law; it is only another path to democracy."
Today, despite transforming himself from military dictator to civilian president, Musharraf has overstayed his welcome, according to critics including politicians, pollsters and citizens on the street. In a poll taken two months ago, 67 percent of those surveyed said he should resign.
"When he took power, we felt that he'd take us down the right path and then go after two or three years, but now he's been here eight years, and who can question him, who can tell him to go?" said Abdul Rauf, 40, the owner of a men's shop in Islamabad's upper-class Jinnah Shopping Market.
For many, Musharraf's greatest failure has been his inability to break Pakistan's addiction to dynastic parties and personality cults, evidenced by the 10 years of corrupt, failed governments led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, a pair of prime ministers whom Musharraf accused of presiding over an "era of sham democracy."
"Musharraf's coup in 1999 was widely perceived as deliverance from the inept and corrupt cycles of political rule by PML and PPP," or Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan People's Party, the parties of Sharif and Bhutto, Pakistani political analyst Rifaat Hussain wrote in an e-mail. "Many of us had pinned hopes on Musharraf to reform the system and lead the way forward."
Now, "it is a measure of the bankruptcy of Musharraf's eight-year-long rule in Pakistan that today PPP and PML have emerged as real contenders for power once again," Hussain said. "Only he could have revived the political fortunes of these two political parties."
Disenchantment with Musharraf's hold on power has grown even within his own party, which is bitterly divided over how he engineered his reelection in the fall by a lame-duck parliament stacked with his supporters. At the time, he still led the army; after his win, he sacked a Supreme Court that threatened to invalidate it.
Ishaq Khan Khakwani resigned his Cabinet post in protest. Khakwani said in an interview that he told Musharraf he supported him personally, but "I was not a follower of the country's generals being president," he said, arguing that "elections are to resolve problems in society, not to create them."
Now, Khakwani said, he has returned to Musharraf's fold because he has no other political home, and supporting corrupt and ineffective leaders from the past was not an option for him. He compared his "dilemma" to that of the United States. "You have to pick and choose, and like me, they have nowhere else to go. Musharraf is better than the others. That is all."
Today, analysts say Musharraf's grip on power is increasingly tenuous following a series of political calamities, including his unpopular six-week declaration of emergency rule and the assassination of Bhutto.
With Bhutto's allies blaming Musharraf for not adequately protecting her and botching the investigation into her death, it is unclear which political parties, if any, will join with him and his branch of the Pakistan Muslim League, the PML-Q, after elections scheduled for Feb. 18. That raises the possibility that a hostile parliament could try to unseat him.
To prevent such an outcome, many analysts say, Musharraf's government might try to rig the balloting, even if it risks destabilizing street protests and a response from an army Musharraf no longer controls.
"He cannot afford free elections," said retired army general and political analyst Talat Masood, a onetime Musharraf supporter.
The Friday Times, a weekly newspaper here, made the same argument last week. "President Musharraf hasn't come so far so autocratically and so unaccountably to let free elections decide his fate and that of Pakistan," it said in a front-page editorial. "The problem is that if rigging is overdone, it could precipitate a party-political backlash that negates the election."
Despite his plummeting popularity, Musharraf delivered on many of the promises he made after taking power in October 1999, particularly his pledge to put Pakistan's economic house in order. At the time, the country was nearly bankrupt. Under his stewardship, foreign reserves ballooned from $1.4 billion to $15.7 billion, the gross national product doubled to about $125 billion, foreign investment nearly quadrupled and poverty rates declined by about 10 percent. He oversaw a massive increase in the number of private television stations and other media, more stable relations with India and a burgeoning of the middle class.
"Things are going bad, but we're still better off than under the previous politicians," said Rahil Shad, 26, who works for a soft drink company in Islamabad. "Eight years is not enough for one person to change the whole system. He started that - why not let him finish it?"
Still, Shad said he feared Musharraf's days are numbered.
"The political parties are much stronger than Pervez Musharraf," he said. "After he shed his uniform, he's just an ordinary guy. He's got no one behind him."
Many Pakistanis complain that the gap between the rich and poor has grown, while 8 percent inflation has made food and energy costs prohibitively expensive. Islamic extremism and terrorist attacks are on the rise, leaving more than 400 people dead and 900 injured in suicide bombings in the past three months.
Surveys show that Pakistanis see the restoration of democracy as a key factor in improving security and combating Islamic extremism.
But in recent months, as the calls increased for Musharraf to step down, analysts said his response became more authoritarian: He sacked the country's chief justice and fired dozens of other independent judges, yanked independent television channels off the air in the name of public security, arrested political opponents, stacked the election commission with supporters, and finally suspended the constitution and declared emergency rule.
"It's eight years down the line, and last year was the worst of his political life. Musharraf made one mistake after another," said Mushahid Hussein, the number-two official in Musharraf's political party and a top adviser to the president. "He was cocksure and overconfident. There was the feeling of a Catholic marriage - till death do us part."
Despite his criticism, Hussein remains a Musharraf supporter, arguing that the president repeatedly shows a willingness to correct his mistakes - finally giving up his job as army chief and picking a credible successor, lifting emergency rule, allowing Bhutto and Sharif to return from exile and rescheduling elections that he had postponed. "The biggest challenge now are honest and peaceful elections," he said.
"He tried to be a democrat and a dictator, but the concept didn't work," said Tasleem Zahra, 21, a business student in the capital. "What we need is a young, elected politician who can run Pakistan moderately and honestly."