WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 (UPI) -- There seems to be a consensus in Pakistan -- from the man on the street to those in echelons of power -- that President Pervez Musharraf is on his way out.
Nobody disputes that statement. The questions that are debated now are how and when.
But the general, who came to power eight years ago in a peaceful coup that was welcomed by a vast majority of Pakistanis, is still trying to prolong his stay -- this time with the help of liberal politicians.
He hopes to use former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and others like her to get another lease of life as he used religious parties and political turncoats after the last general elections in October 2002.
But Bhutto is not a political orphan as many in the religious alliance known as Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Q) party were.
Religious parties had never won more than a handful of seats in previous Pakistani elections. They had never ruled over any place in Pakistan, but now they control a province and are coalition partners in another.
This was only possible because Musharraf forced the country's two main politicians -- Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif -- to stay abroad.
Their absence during the 2002 elections allowed MMA and the PML (Q) to capture the constituencies they had never won before.
It also allowed them to forge political alliances that allowed the PML (Q) to form governments in the center and in Punjab province. MMA took the Northwest Frontier and Balochistan provinces.
Bhutto can do all these on her own. Despite eight years of military rule, her vote bank has, more or less, remained intact. She is also good at forging political alliances and has done so successfully in the past.
So when Musharraf flew all the way to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates two weeks ago to seek her help to save him, Bhutto very bluntly told the general she would do so only if he retired from the army and agreed to become a civilian president.
Pakistan follows the British parliamentary system in which all the powers are with the prime minister and the president is just a rubber stamp.
Military rulers overcome this problem by putting "the Constitution in abeyance," a phrase coined by Pakistani superior courts to justify frequent military takeovers.
But unfortunately for Musharraf, the Pakistani Supreme Court is no longer in a mood to issue another "abeyance" order, thanks to his failed attempt in March this year to suspend the country's chief justice.
Following a huge public uprising against Musharraf's attempt to steamroll the judiciary, the Supreme Court restored the chief justice and declared the president's suspension order illegal and unconstitutional.
This could not have happened at a more unfortunate time for Musharraf. Pakistan's next elections are due in October, unless he declares an emergency or reimposes martial law.
For both purposes, he will need a pliant judiciary, the unflinching support of his generals and Washington's endorsement. He is unlikely to have any.
If the elections are held as scheduled, then Musharraf has to take a fresh vote of confidence by September from the federal and provincial legislatures, as required by the Constitution.
He won the previous vote, in 2002, with the help of MMA and the PML (Q). Despite some setbacks, the general has many supporters in the present legislatures and wants to seek re-election from them.
But Pakistani legal experts say that this is illegal. They argue that a fresh vote is mandated so that the president can seek a vote of confidence from the new national and provincial legislatures. Seeking re-election from the outgoing Parliament fails the purpose.
If Musharraf sets aside such legal opinions and seeks re-election from the present legislatures, it will be challenged in the Supreme Court. And given the Court's current state of mind and its new-found freedom, the decision will not favor Musharraf.
The only person who can save him from total disgrace is Bhutto. If she is allowed to return, she is likely to win the forthcoming elections and then can use her influence to get a vote of confidence for Musharraf from the new lawmakers.
But she has made it obvious that she will only do so if Musharraf retires from the army and agrees to become a civilian president.
This may be a good way out for any other person but is a bitter pill for Musharraf, who has ruled the country as an autocrat for eight years. It may not be easy for him to relegate himself to the position of a constitutional head of state with no power.
But this dispute over Musharraf's new status may delay the much-needed political change in Pakistan. And if this happens, the country will see a lot more bloodshed and may recede into a state of confusion and chaos.
Such a situation will only help religious extremists who may want to exploit the situation to attempt to seize power in one of the world's largest Muslim nations, which is also a de facto nuclear power -- a scenario that is acceptable neither to Pakistani liberals nor to the United States.
Indications are that the United States is not only aware of this danger but is also making efforts to avoid it. At a recent congressional hearing, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns mentioned Bhutto while talking about liberal politicians that the United States would like to see taking charge in Pakistan.
The Pakistani media also are full of reports, quoting informed official sources, that the United States played a key role in arranging the Musharraf-Bhutto meeting and is using its influence to help arrange an acceptable solution that empowers Bhutto without relegating Musharraf to the status of a figurehead.