Musharraf's Counterrevolution

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K.M. Chaudary / AP

Thousands of supporters of an opposition alliance wave their party flags during an anti-government rally in Lahore, Pakistan on Monday, March 26, 2007. Pakistan's opposition parties held rallies across Pakistan against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's removal of a top judge, raising the stakes in a judicial crisis.

Lawyers taking to the streets, Islamists up in arms and opposition parties joining in massive, countrywide protests: What's a beleaguered government to do? In the case of Pakistan, the answer is simple — throw a counter-rally and rent a crowd to fill the stands — even if it creates a transportation crisis in the process.

President Pervez Musharraf, who has faced near permanent protests since he suspended a Supreme Court judge three weeks ago for as yet undefined suspicions of misconduct, has organized a public address and rally today in Rawalpindi, not far from the capital Islamabad, to prove to his people, and the world, that he still has the support of a large section of the country's population. Today's rally was expected to attract many more participants than yesterday's protest in Islamabad that was organized by a consortium of opposition parties and attended by several thousand. However turnout at yesterday's event would have been much higher, some attendees argue, if more than 100 opposition organizers hadn't been preemptively detained and kept under house arrest in the days preceding the protest.

That's not the only trick Musharraf has used in the my-rally-is-bigger-than-yours stakes. The government has directed teachers, professors and civil servants to attend, and commanded district and village leaders to bring anywhere from 100 to 1000 people from their towns to the rally. In order to transport these less-than-fervent fans, hundreds of buses, vans and mini-buses have been commandeered from transport operators across the region since Sunday, and parked throughout the capital. The government has promised to compensate drivers for the use of their vehicles, offering 2000 rupees, or $35 in addition to fuel, but that may not be enough to convince them. Drivers point out that their vehicles will be off the road for two or three days, and on good routes, operators make around $45 a day. So just to be certain, drivers' documents were retained to ensure that they show up to work on the day of the rally.

Still, some canny drivers have stayed off the roads altogether, preferring to take a few days off over the hassle of trying to get cash out of the government. The result has been chaos for the tens of thousands in the capital area who depend on public transportation to get to work or school. Taxis have doubled their prices, and the roads around Rawalpindi and Islamabad are full of resigned commuters trudging to their destinations on foot.

Today's rally may be important for Musharraf's eventual re-election campaign, but once again he is alienating the very people he should be courting. In consideration of the transport difficulties, the city government of Rawalpindi has declared today a holiday. Of course, what's the point of a holiday if you can't get anywhere. Then again, that may be exactly the government's point: all the more reason, after all, for residents to attend the rally.