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A Crucial Vote in Pakistan

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
February 15, 2008

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Many have expressed hope that Pakistan’s February 18 parliamentary elections (ElectionGuide.org) will bring political stability to a country torn by militancy, emergency rule, and political upheaval. But amid incidents of violence (al-Jazeera) and allegations of biased election officials, some Pakistanis are bracing for more turbulence after the polling. One chief reason is alleged disenfranchisement. The Free and Fair Election Network, a coalition of Pakistani civil-society organizations observing the election process, says fifteen million voters, representing more than 17 percent of the total, are still missing from the final electoral roll (PDF). Says Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch:“There have been numerous complaints of improper government assistance to the ruling party and illegal interference with opposition activities.” Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has denied all such charges (VOA), assuring there will be free and fair elections. Media reports (BBC) have suggested otherwise.

Pakistan’s government has banned exit polls, but several opinion surveys by international organizations point toward the growing popularity of opposition political parties and Musharraf’s plummeting credibility. A recent poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan showed 64 percent of Pakistanis say the country’s stability and security would improve if Musharraf resigned. Musharraf’s popularity, which had declined since the judicial crisis in March 2007, plunged further last December after opposition party leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. A survey conducted by the U.S.-based organization Terror Free Tomorrow in January 2008 showed 58 percent of Pakistanis blame Musharraf (PDF), government-allied politicians, and government agencies for Bhutto’s death.

Pakistan’s economy, worsened by recent political upheaval, topped voter concerns in the latest poll by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI). Also, voter surveys made clear that Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) could benefit from a sympathetic vote; it topped the field (PDF), garnering 50 percent in the national sample. Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan’s Muslim League (PML-N) came in a distant second, trailed by that party’s other faction, which supports Musharraf.

In the event of voting irregularities, experts have painted various worrying scenarios in a country still struggling with rising militant violence in its tribal areas and North West Frontier Province. The growing number of terrorists using Pakistan as a base is of particular concern to U.S. authorities. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in testimony (PDF) to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 13, said: “We are encouraging formation of a moderate center to complete the transition to democracy and underwrite the fight against violent extremism.”

The United States has had a tumultuous relationship with Pakistan, as this new timeline explains, and continues to score low in Pakistani public approval ratings. The IRI poll showed only 9 percent of Pakistanis said their country should cooperate with Washington in its war on terror. Teresita C. Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the United States has relied too much on one man—Musharraf—and warns that all the scenarios in which Musharraf remains president will involve some form of continued instability (PDF). CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey looks at the choices open to Washington in this Policy Options Paper.

Markey and other experts advocate strengthening Pakistan’s civil institutions, and restorating an independent judiciary and free media. But they stress the catalyst for change will be the army, which dominates the state. A new army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, has reportedly taken the first steps towards disengaging the military from the civilian sphere (NYT) but he faces challenges. As Ashley J. Tellis, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes: “The argument has always been that the incentives for the military to intervene (PDF) either formally or informally in Pakistani politics always rise with the degree of confusion or the degree of excessive competition.”

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