Elections, Democracy and Stability in Pakistan

President Musharraf faces the most serious challenge to almost eight years of military rule. Opposition has gathered momentum following his failed attempt to remove the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Moderate political parties, all segments of civil society and the public at large are vociferously demanding restoration of democracy and rule of law and the military’s withdrawal from politics. The choice is not whether a transition will come but whether it will be peaceful and orderly, through free and fair elections, or violent. Musharraf and the high command are tempted to retain their power at all costs. Several of their options – particularly emergency – could portend disaster. Rigged or stalled elections would destabilise Pakistan, with serious international security consequences. Especially the U.S., needs to recognise its own interests are no longer served by military rule (if they ever really were) and use its considerable leverage to persuade the generals to return to the barracks and accept a democratic transition through free and fair parliamentary, followed by presidential, elections this year.

Bent on gaining another presidential term and retaining the office of army chief, Musharraf wants the present national and provincial assemblies (collectively the presidential Electoral College), which are themselves the product of the rigged 2002 polls and end their own five-year terms this year, to re-elect him. Opposition parties, including the main civilian contenders, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League (PML-N), reject that. They also rightly fear that elections for new assemblies, if held at all, are likely to be rigged.

However, Musharraf can no longer count on a pliant judiciary endorsing his re-election by the current, stacked assemblies, his retention of the dual offices of president and army chief or any other unconstitutional act. Another stolen election would be strongly resisted by the opposition parties and civil society and could possibly lead to a violent confrontation between the military and protestors.

A rigged election would also not serve international interests. Now, as before, Musharraf has little choice but to support the Islamist parties to counter his moderate opposition. The pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI)’s help is essential to him, particularly in Balochistan, where the staunchly anti-military Baloch nationalist parties would likely win a free and fair poll. In the national parliament too, Musharraf would need the Islamists’ support to get renewed approval of his dual hats. If the Islamist parties gain five more years of power in Balochistan and Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), their militant allies – Pakistani, Afghan and transnational – will benefit, and the moderate parties, which still retain the support of the vast majority of the population, will lose.

With his military government fast losing all claims to public support and legitimacy, Musharraf could decide to compromise with the national-level moderate parties, reaching, for instance, a power-sharing accord with Bhutto’s PPP, which would likely win a free and fair election. Speculation about such a compromise was revived by their meeting in Abu Dhabi on 27 July. By agreeing to hold such an election and give up his army post in return for the PPP supporting him for president, he could retain some legitimacy and policy-making influence. Given the momentum of the pro-democracy movement, however, this option may no longer be viable. Even if Bhutto is still amenable, Sharif’s PML-N rejects any further role for Musharraf, in or out of uniform, and the Supreme Court might be reluctant to give him a pass on the two-year constitutional bar on a retired general standing for public office.

Musharraf and the high command could still refuse to see the writing on the wall and impose a state of emergency, suspending democratic rights and freedoms postponing general elections for a year and in effect imposing absolute military rule. Citing the threat of heightened militancy as a pretext for the action, he could then use the emergency powers to postpone national elections. This would fuel pro-democracy protests and civil disobedience, forcing the military either to back down or resort to violence. Such repression would cause citizens, especially in those regions such as Balochistan that have already suffered from military excesses, to lose belief that political change can come through peaceful and democratic means.

In the face of such unattractive options, it is also possible that the generals would conclude that a democratic transition is their best course. This would require them to withdraw their support from Musharraf and agree to genuine elections. Whether they reach such a decision, however, depends importantly upon how the international community uses its considerable leverage with the high command.

It is vital, therefore, that the international community understand its interests are best served by a stable, democratically-governed Pakistan. Since the 11 September terror attacks, the U.S. has provided the bulk of $10 billion in aid to the military, believing that the military is their reliable partner and the only institution with the capacity to govern and to combat militants. On the contrary, by excluding moderate parties, military rule has fanned extremism; by alienating the smaller provinces and virtually blocking all institutions and channels of meaningful participation, it threatens to destabilise a country of 160 million people in a strategic and volatile neighborhood. By permitting the Taliban insurgents, aligned with jihadi political parties, to operate from Pakistani sanctuaries, it has endangered the fragile democracy in Afghanistan.

The U.S. should use its considerable influence to persuade the generals to give up power, offering political and material incentives if they do so and threatening sanctions if they thwart democratic change. A free, fair and transparent election this year is the first, necessary step in the peaceful political transition that is needed to bring Pakistan to moderate, democratic moorings.


To the Pakistan Government:

1. Hold timely, free, fair and transparent national and provincial assembly elections this year, before presidential polls, so that assemblies with a new popular mandate can serve as the presidential Electoral College.

2. Appoint a neutral, caretaker government formed in consultation with the main opposition parties in parliament, once the election schedule is announced, to supervise the general elections.

3. Ensure the independence and autonomy of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) by:

(a) appointing a new Chief Election Commissioner in consultation with the parliamentary opposition parties; and

(b) empowering the ECP to enforce its Code of Conduct, especially provisions relating to the use of government resources for election campaigning, including the announcement and/or inauguration of public sector development schemes that might influence votes.

4. Suspend the current local governments once the election schedule is announced and appoint administrators to serve until the elections are held and results announced.

5. Forbid involvement of intelligence agencies at any stage of the electoral process and refrain from using the civil administration to influence the outcome.

6. Provide a level playing field by:

(a) releasing political prisoners;

(b) allowing the unconditional return from abroad of political leaders and repealing the bar on a prime minister serving more than two terms; and

(c) affording all political parties freedom to organise public rallies and mobilise voters and giving them equal access to state media.

7. Share preliminary electoral rolls with all political parties and ensure that potential voters are given ample opportunity to exercise their right of franchise.

8. Ensure the security of domestic and international election observers and provide them unfettered access to the electoral process.

To the Political Parties:

9. Pool resources to expose electoral malpractice and fraud.

10. Do not accept military support during the election process or in the process of government formation.

11. Agree on and adhere to a common code of conduct for the elections.

To the United States, the European Union and Other Members of the International Community:

12. Strongly and publicly warn against imposition of emergency rule or any other measure to stifle constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech, association, assembly and movement.

13. Urge the military high command to accept a return to democracy, including by concurring in the following steps:

(a) return of exiled party leaders;

(b) free and fair general parliamentary elections before a new president is selected;

(c) the new assemblies acting as the presidential Electoral College; and

(d) separation of the posts of president and army chief.

14. Assist the democratic transition by:

(a) sending adequately resourced and staffed election observation missions at least three months in advance of the elections to assess whether the polls are held in an impartial way and meet international standards;

(b) conditioning military assistance to the government on meeting international standards for free, fair and democratic elections and making such assistance after the elections conditional on the military accepting the supremacy of civilian government; and

(c) providing strong political and financial support to an elected civilian government.