Musharraf sets elections for February 15 Update: Report that Bhutto is under house arrest

That’s a month later than was planned before Musharraf’s state of emergency.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf yielded to pressure from the United States on Thursday and said Pakistan will hold parliamentary elections by mid-February, just a month later than originally planned.

But the military leader showed no sign of letting up on his political foes, reportedly arresting more than 800 supporters of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto before dawn in an effort to head off a major anti-government demonstration set for Friday.

The White House hailed its ally’s election pledge, but Bhutto denounced his announcement as “vague” and demanded Musharraf give up his second post as army chief within a week. She said the mass protest would go ahead despite warnings it could be targeted by suicide bombers.

It seems, to me if no one else, that no one is behaving wisely here. The state of emergency was, to put it mildly, a bad idea. As were the arrests of lawyers and others who only pose a threat to Musharraf, not to the country itself. Musharraf morphs more and more into a dictator with each arrest and each day in the state of siege. But at the same time, what is the point of street demonstrations as Bhutto is calling for? I see two things that are likely to result: Terrorists may attack the demonstrators out of their usual lust for carnage, or Musharraf may attack them out of paranoia. Hugo Chavez can order his goons to attack protesters and it barely causes a stir, but if Musharraf does that he’ll have the whole world pounding him for it. The pressure applied to Musharraf has forced his hand on elections, but that presumes that nothing happens to derail them between now and then, and that waiting until February allows for enough cooling off. Factor in the loss of Pakistani territory to pro-Taliban factions and you have the makings of a very serious mess. The mess didn’t start with Musharraf’s imposition of the state of emergency, but it certainly wasn’t made better by it.

It’s difficult to see this situation ending well, in terms of mid-term violence and long-term outcome. The Musharraf and Bhutto factions keeps pushing the other, and the radicals are probably plotting how to keep them divided and when to attack which one to make the point that Musharraf isn’t strong enough to deal with them and Bhutto won’t know how. At this point, both critiques seem to be accurate. It’s all a recipe for chaos unless and until Musharraf and Bhutto can come to some kind of understanding. And given where public opinion seems to be in Pakistan, getting Musharraf and Bhutto together is no guarantee that Pakistan won’t spiral out of control.

Update: Paranoia strikes deep.

Pakistan’s former premier Benazir Bhutto was to be put under house arrest Friday, hours before she was due to lead a rally against a state of emergency, government officials said.

“She is being placed under house arrest,” a senior government offcial told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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