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Markey: Crucial To Hold Pakistan Elections on Time in January

Interviewee: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 5, 2007

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Daniel Markey, a former U.S. State Department specialist on South Asia, says President Pervez Musharraf's emergency decree runs the risk of alienating so many different opposition groups that a more radical element could take power as happened in Iran. He says that sticking to plans to hold parliamentary elections early next year would give hope to political parties in Pakistan that would “rather participate in elections than mobilize for an outright opposition movement with the radical Islamists against the government.” The promise by Pakistan's prime minister and attorney general that the elections will take place on time, Markey said, was “a very important and positive first step.”

The latest news from Pakistan is that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum have both said that the scheduled parliamentary elections originally set for mid-January will be held on schedule. This is not an official government announcement, but seemingly close to one. What do you think about this?

I think it is a very important and positive first step. It is not all that needs to be said, but it is a good first piece of the puzzle, in terms of laying out a plan for how this emergency rule will end and what comes afterwards. I think it could have a calming effect on Washington, on London, and on other international capitals and it should send a signal to political opposition leaders, especially Benazir Bhutto, the head of the PPP [the Pakistan People's Party], the leading political party, that there is light at the end of this tunnel. If they can hold on for a little while without turning directly against the regime, they will be able to pick up the pieces and move forward with the political process that was already in play before this emergency decree was made.

What problems do you foresee, if these statements actually turn out to be what happens?

This is only the first step. There are a lot of remaining problems. How can they conduct national elections, in the context of emergency rule? These things are not at all clear at this stage. They need to be spelled out for the international community and to Pakistan as well. How can they possibly have elections if the media is not free and continues to be censored? How can they have elections if freedom of assembly is curtailed? These things are not very clear to me and so that's where the challenge lays now, with the Pakistan leadership spelling it out to the rest of the world.

Were you surprised by the emergency decree?

I think “surprise” is not exactly right. I was in Pakistan the week before this happened and it was very clear that something was brewing. Even though I hoped that this could be avoided, as the days passed, it was pretty clear, just judging from some of the reports that were coming out of Islamabad, that this was fated to happen now. The timing at least — if not all of the reasons behind it — has to do with the expectation that the Pakistan Supreme Court was going to rule against the validity of Musharraf's recent reelection as president.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

But why was Musharraf so sure they were going to rule against him? Was that because he had not given up his army command yet?

The initial case against Musharraf was the question of whether he was eligible to run in the recent presidential election because he was still holding his army chief post. The concern of many of Musharraf's chief advisers was that the court was about to rule against him. Now if they had ruled against him, some suggested that he could have run again, and try to get elected by the next national assembly that would be seated after national elections slated to happen in January. The problem with that was there were likely to be other cases raised by those who would contest his legitimacy again because of another part of the Pakistani constitution which bars those who have served in the military from running for public office for two years.

Thus, there were a number of potential court challenges, each of which could have barred President Musharraf from serving as a purely civilian president, even if he was willing to take off the uniform after taking on that role. The Musharraf camp was very concerned about that. The problem in declaring emergency rule ahead of a ruling is that no one could have been certain how the court would have ruled.

Of course we had the long history with Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was fired by Musharraf in March, and then finally getting reinstated after a long period of political protest and agitation.

Exactly. It was very clear that at least parts of the court had set itself up as an opposition force to Musharraf. At least that's the way it was being seen by many of Musharraf's loyalists. They saw this as more of a political struggle than a purely legal one.

Now, Musharraf in his own rationale, attributed the emergency decree largely to the fighting against terrorists and militants throughout Pakistan. Is there any legitimacy in that claim?

I think that he was trying to suggest that there were a number of issues that forced this upon him and that he was reluctant to take this step and, to some degree, I think that reluctance is legitimate. He had a plan for how he wanted to proceed over these months and the plan, I think, included him taking on the role of the civilian presidency, getting himself away from the army, putting those whom he felt comfortable with in positions of power within the army, and then holding national elections, and allowing opposition forces, including [former Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto, to participate. There were a number of things that were cropping up making this very difficult. One of them was the ratcheting up of violence around the country, both in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and the settled areas that border on the FATA, and throughout the rest of the country. The bomb blast in Karachi last month against Ms. Bhutto's procession was the single largest loss of life in Pakistan from a terrorist attack in Pakistan's history.

You're describing Musharraf as a bit of a “reluctant dictator”here.

I wouldn't say he was a “reluctant dictator.” I would say he had a plan for a political transition that would have left him in a position of power, but would have reduced it somewhat, and would provide an opportunity for other political forces, including Benazir and her party, the PPP, to assume a greater role. That's what he and those around him had in mind for this next six-month period. I think they felt that the Supreme Court was in danger of completely overturning that plan. And this took place [at a time when] levels of violence are unprecedented in Pakistan's history.

You would think that, automatically, the United States would be most concerned about the al-Qaeda, Taliban problems. Is the administration really concerned about the domestic democracy issue?

I do think the administration is concerned about that. I think the problem is that there are not a lot of great options. If there were an opposition leader in Pakistan, or a set of institutions in Pakistan that provided a ready, easy alternative to Musharraf, then I think Washington would have moved in that direction some time ago. But as we look at Pakistan, we don't see that. So, it is not a matter of whether the United States desires a democratic transition. There's a more fundamental question of how one could even go about doing it.

In other words, the political parties, particularly Bhutto's PPP, aren't seen as an answer in themselves?

Correct. I think there has been a significant amount of skepticism in Washington about the capacity of any or all of the civilian political parties to manage Pakistan's challenges without a strong military component to what they're up to. And that's where Musharraf holds a lot of the leverage because he represents that.

I guess another fear in Washington for years has been if the Pakistan military became much more Islamic.

Right, and I think we, on the outside of the administration and those outside of Pakistan, tend to discount most of what Musharraf has been up to in the last seven years, in his efforts to fight terrorism and so on. But I think if you look closely you will see that his effort within his own army to create an institution that was more resistant to those types of extremists has been very significant and very important. That's something he has done not to help the United States primarily, although it is partially that, but also to create a Pakistani army as an institution that is not at least filled with Islamists. I think at the time of 9/11, this was more of a threat than it is now, and that's a tribute to Musharraf.

Another point I would make that tends to be overlooked is the extent that under Musharraf the relationship with India has at least in recent years really improved. That's provided an opening for us and Pakistan to really focus on the extremist threat and reduce the potential for an outbreak of violence along the Indian-Pakistan border, which also tends to be discounted.

Well then, why doesn't the United States just come out and say we understand President Musharraf's actions and we hope the country eventually moves toward democracy.

I think the problem is that Washington is invested in a vision for political transition that was supposed to take place by early next year. The administration has put itself squarely behind the holding of free-and-fair elections — the national elections that are supposed to take place in the January-February time frame — and I think rightfully so because at the same time that Musharraf has been more helpful than I think most people would suggest, he and the army cannot continue to do this alone without a broader based political legitimacy.

This is why the move toward martial law has been so damaging. It actually takes him one step away from that. Despite all the reasons for the action, some more legitimate than others, it still is a move in a really unfortunate direction. I think the Bush administration recognizes that; that's why it cannot simply say his actions were necessary, that this is a step he had to take. The administration still hopes that Musharraf and company can get this program back on the rails and get the elections back to where we hoped to be. That way, in a matter of months, you could still have some kind of elections and still have some sort of new political configuration in Islamabad that would bring in the PPP and several other parties and ease Musharraf into a position of civilian responsibility as president, rather than being an army chief.

So your hope, which I guess is also the administration's, is that by early next year, Musharraf can move from martial law to elections?

Yes. My immediate hope is that Musharraf's government will come out in a matter of days — as the prime minister and attorney general said today — and offer a statement about a roadmap to elections. I think that will be a very healthy thing and probably would give them a certain amount of breathing space and also give hope to those political parties in Pakistan which would rather participate in elections than mobilize for an outright opposition movement with the radical Islamists against the government. It was this kind of coalition in Iran that led to the overthrow of the Shah, and the subsequent purging of the liberals, leaving the radical Islamists in power.

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