On the Pakistani Elections

On the Pakistani Elections

A State Department official told Congress last week that General Pervez Musharraf”s decision to suspend Pakistan”s constitution, impose martial law, sack and detain Supreme Court judges and arrest thousands of lawyers and opposition party activists was just “a bump in the road” during Pakistan”s “transition to democracy.” The Bush administration is also working overtime to claim that parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 8, will offer a real choice to Pakistanis and though flawed they would be still reasonably free and fair.

Washington appears to have decided to use its good offices to influence the behavior of the opposition. U.S. diplomats were influential in securing participation by Pakistan”s major political parties in the poll, which most experts agree would be conducted in an environment of fraud and intimidation.

Officials argue that the opposition”s participation in the election would help open up political space in the country wracked by Islamist terrorist violence and civil disorder. The polls would enable the social democratic Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto and the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by Nawaz Sharif come back into the governing process, making it easier for the military to step out.

But the U.S. could effectively be helping Musharraf legitimize a flawed election and put Pakistan on the path of Egypt, where U.S.-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak has ruled for more than a quarter century with regular flawed elections and no democracy.

In his latest interview with CNN, Musharraf insisted that he was neutral in the forthcoming elections. He then went on to slam opposition leaders Sharif and Bhutto and claimed that they were preparing the ground for their defeat by alleging that the January elections would be rigged and not free and fair. If Musharraf is neutral why has he gone out of the way to claim that the opposition is preparing for defeat rather than saying that he would examine the charges of election rigging?

Musharraf used words like “fraud” to describe the opposition”s stance. He also claimed that “In Pakistan the loser always cries,” a contra-factual statement considering that Bhutto and Sharif alternated in office throughout the 1990s and accepted election results each time. The basic definition of democracy includes acceptance of alternation in office. By making it clear that he does not intend to relinquish power no matter what, Musharraf opens himself to charges of fixing the poll results from the word “go.”

All credible opinion polls in Pakistan indicate that Sharif and Bhutto are way ahead of Musharraf in popularity. The PPP has consistently emerged as the single largest political party in recent opinion polls and the King”s Party, the Pakistan Muslim League Q (PML-Q) — a faction of Sharif”s party created by Musharraf with the help of Pakistan secret police after his 1999 coup — is a distant third nationwide.

To pave the way for rigged polls, Pakistan”s intelligence services floated a fake poll by “U.S.-based international Public Opinion Polls (IPOP)” claiming that Musharraf”s popularity had risen after becoming a civilian. IPOP”s website had no address, phone number or other contact details. The PDF version of the poll results claimed the pollster was based in Boston, Massachusetts but gave a non-existent zip code. Quite clearly, dirty tricks developed in the United States and other countries are now being employed by Pakistan”s invisible government to cover up what might be a blatant poll rigging effort.

Musharraf”s language and demeanor resembles that of Mubarak at the time of the 1987 elections for the Egyptian parliament as is the optimistic tone of U.S. officials about a critical Muslim ally”s transition to democracy. Twenty years later, Mubarak is still in power and the Egyptian people still have no real choice between leaders. Egypt is a nation of a thousand NGOs and several political parties but there is no serious political challenge to Mubarak”s authority. Mubarak marginalized the real opposition, allowed western funded NGOs to work within pre-defined spheres, and has regularly held elections without allowing alternation in power.

Musharraf”s guns are trained on Bhutto and Sharif for a reason. Having served as prime ministers, the two are visible reminders that Pakistan can be ruled by someone other than Musharraf. Once they are out of the way, Musharraf can follow Mubarak in holding election after election, changing rules and judges as often as he likes, and control the country with the help of the security services and large amounts of U.S. aid.

Like Musharraf, Mubarak (who started out as an Air Force general) has been a civilian and out of uniform for the last 25 years but that has not eased the grip of the military and the intelligence services over Egypt”s polity. Musharraf”s decision to continue to live in “Army House” after ostensibly handing over command to General Ashfaq Kayani reflects his desire to be Pakistan”s Mubarak.