January 16, 2008

January 16, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East

Boost Pakistanis' confidence in elections

Has it been worth billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid to support Pervez Musharraf? Does fighting terrorism justify propping up an undemocratic regime? All week, Brian Katulis and Lisa Curtis debate the U.S. alliance with Pakistan.

Most Pakistanis doubt that free and fair elections can be held with President Pervez Musharraf at the helm. He has squandered his credibility over the last year, dismissing the country's Supreme Court chief justice last March, imposing emergency rule in November and then mishandling the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. (The Pakistani Interior Ministry initially claimed that Bhutto died from a head fracture despite video footage that indicates she was likely killed by a bullet.) If Musharraf further postpones the February election, most Pakistanis will believe he has done so to prolong his own grip on power.

Musharraf could take steps to boost Pakistanis' confidence in the election process. These steps include lifting remaining curbs on the media (although Musharraf officially lifted emergency rule in mid-December, a media code of conduct remains in effect); releasing detained lawyers, activists and civilian politicians; working with the political parties to establish a neutral election commission, and most important, reestablishing the independence of the judiciary.

The escalating number of suicide attacks, which has made Pakistan second only to Iraq in the number of bombings in the last six months, also complicates the election environment. Terrorists have proved that they can strike anywhere, any time without suffering retaliation. In fact, some Pakistanis were willing to take the word of Taliban terrorist Baitullah Mahsud over the Musharraf government regarding culpability in Bhutto's slaying, which signals the level of chaos and confusion gripping Pakistani society.

In this polarized political environment, a transparent and fair election seems more difficult than ever, yet the stakes simply could not be any higher. A flawed election viewed as rigged by Musharraf would lead to further civil unrest that could bring Pakistan to a dangerous tipping point. The violent protests and arousal of ethnic tensions sparked by the Bhutto assassination demonstrate the country's fragility. Pakistan has held eight elections in its 60-year history, but next month's may prove to be the most important one yet. Unless Musharraf initiates steps now to bring political reconciliation and ensure a level playing field, he will be held responsible for a flawed election, which would lead to greater instability for his battered country.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the LA Times, "Dust Up" debate