by Eric Margolis
February 18, 2008
Pakistan’s national elections today are critically important for this strife-torn country’s future. They are almost as crucial for its western backers. Unless honestly conducted – and this seems highly unlikely – the vote will ignite further violence, plunging the highly strategic nation of 163 million into new dangers.
As of this posting, the turnout is disappointingly low, averaging less than 35%, caused by apathy, political fatigue, fears of attacks and the widespread belief that the elections will be manipulated by the government of President Pervez Mushattaf.
Only one thing is certain about today’s vote. If President Pervez Musharraf and his PML-Q party do well enough to retain power or head a coalition, the election was likely rigged.
Musharraf has rigged every vote since seizing power in a 1999 military coup. Polls show only 15-20% of Pakistanis support him. The majority backs the late Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party, and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League (PML-N). A coalition of Muslim parties, and cricket star Imran Khan’s PTI, may also garner some new voters, though Islamists have been trailing in the polls.
However, Musharraf’s powerful friends are determined to keep him power. In spite of Musharraf’s having muzzled the media, jailed thousands of opponents, purged the judiciary, and stuffed the electoral commission with henchmen, Washington, London and Ottawa still support his dictatorship and continue to hail him as a `democrat.’
While piously claiming to be waging war in Afghanistan to bring it democracy, the western powers have been encouraging and abetting dictatorship in Pakistan.
The reason is clear: Musharraf has rented out much of his army and intelligence service to battle Taliban in Afghanistan and tribal militants at home. His fee: up to $1 billion monthly in secret and overt US payments. Without them, Musharraf wouldn’t last very long.
Musharraf and his US and British patrons are hoping the opposition will split the vote and become deadlocked, leaving the former general as last man standing. The opposition, by contrast, is talking about ending the war against Taliban and reasserting Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir – something Washington and London do not want to hear.
The powerful military still supports Musharraf, though for how long depends on the level of post-election violence. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the new armed forces chief, was selected by Musharraf and Washington as a loyal anti-Islamist who would follow America’s lead. But this capable general remains an enigma. Indian intelligence sources say the US decided in early 2007 to ease the floundering Musharraf from power and make Gen. Kiyani Pakistan’s new strongman. One is reminded of Henry Kissinger’s cynical quip that the only thing more dangerous than being America’s enemy is being its ally. Musharraf’s usefulness to Washington is rapidly nearing its expiry date.
If Pakistan is rent by widespread protests and violence over brazen electoral fraud, or suffers political deadlock, the military may overthrow the widely detested Musharraf and seize power. Gen. Kiyani is said to be reluctant to see the military re-engage in politics, but there could be no alternative if veteran politicians Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, cannot produce a viable government.
The best outcome would be for the military to exile Musharraf and impose temporary martial law until the independent judiciary can be restored, the electoral commission made fair, media ungagged, and political repression ended. Then genuine, honest elections could be held and Pakistan returned to parliamentary government. But once the soldiers taste power again, they may be reluctant to give it up.
Until Pakistan gets a legitimate government representing its national interests, rather than those of the western powers, the country will remain in turmoil, and Pakistanis disgusted by the political process.
This, in turn, will pour fuel on the rising flames of anti-Americanism and extremism.
Pakistan is facing spreading civil war, and possible secession by two of its four provinces. The Pashtun tribal uprising ignited by the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan is now spreading into Pakistan, risking a full-scale uprising by that nation’s 25 million Pashtuns. Any of these earthquakes could provoke an invasion by India, met by a nuclear riposte from Pakistan.
The war in Afghanistan and heavy-handed efforts by the US to bend Pakistan’s military regime to its will ignited much of the current turmoil. A majority of Pakistanis don’t want their soldiers to be western mercenaries, or their leaders to appear western yes-men. They support Taliban, and the struggle for Kashmir. But the US is so consumed by its war of revenge against Taliban over 9/11 – in which Taliban as not involved – it cannot see any of this.
Pakistan is the Muslim World’s most important nation and sole nuclear power. By treating Pakistan like a banana republic, arm-twisting Islamabad into battling its own people, and ignoring its own national interests, the US is playing with fire and damaging its own long-term strategic interests.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2008
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Frost over the World: Pakistan’s Election (videos)