ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As Pakistanis started voting Monday in crucial parliamentary elections, they were deciding the fate of a man not even running for office — President Pervez Musharraf.
These elections are seen by many as a referendum on more than eight years of army rule and on Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999 and became one of President Bush’s biggest supporters in the war on terror. The elections, which will determine a new prime minister, will likely be marred by low turnout, violence and allegations of fraud. Regardless, the main outcome is predictable in Pakistan, a nation that has become central to the world’s sense of security, analysts say.
“No matter who wins, Musharraf will come out weaker,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, who runs the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. “With the elections and the new prime minister, more power will be taken away from him.”
These elections are an attempt to return stability and democracy to Pakistan, the world’s only nuclear-armed Islamic nation, which is struggling with a growing threat from Islamic militants.
In the last year, Musharraf has struggled, growing unpopular as he made increasingly desperate moves. He faced widespread protests after he tried to fire the country’s chief justice last March, international condemnation after he declared a state of emergency last November, and near chaos after the December assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and a key opposition leader.
All the turmoil forced Musharraf to step down as chief of the army, seen by many as his true source of power. Now, a new army chief is distancing the military from Musharraf and politics. The next prime minister — who under the oft-amended constitution is supposed to run the government — will likely be from an opposition party. And Musharraf could face a parliament that would refuse to protect him for his unconstitutional moves last fall or even vote to remove him from office.
In a poll released last week by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, 75 percent of respondents said they wanted Musharraf to step down immediately.
The elections are seen as so critical to the approach of the U.S. Congress toward Pakistan, they are being observed by three senators from the Foreign Relations Committee — Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
A strategic place
“This is a strategic place, and it would be horrific to lose it,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), also in Pakistan to observe the vote.
Biden has called on the White House to review all aid to Pakistan to ensure that it is used “to promote democracy and prevent the rise of violent fundamentalism in Pakistan.”
Although some in the U.S. administration fear that an election could produce a leader less responsive to U.S. demands, many Pakistani analysts and politicians say that an election actually could help the United States. A democratic government, they say, would be more effective fighting the war on terror because it would have a mandate from voters.
“We think these are the most important elections in the history of Pakistan,” said Asma Alamgir Arbab, a candidate in Peshawar from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. “They are the most important for the survival of our country. If we do not have free and fair polls, we will have more problems. For a strong Pakistan, for a progressive Pakistan, free elections are the only way out.”
But fears of vote fraud — widely seen as the only way that Musharraf’s supporters can win many seats — are widespread, as are worries about post-election violence. The Pakistan People’s Party is expected to win most seats, and party leader Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, has threatened protests if the party concludes the results were rigged. So has opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
So far, most complaints of rigging have been filed against the largest pro-Musharraf party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q. In Attock, for example, the mayor is the brother-in-law of leading PML-Q prime minister candidate Pervaiz Elahi. Voters accused the mayor of taking identification cards from government employees to use them to vote for Elahi.
“The cards of more than 15,000 female teachers have been snatched by the mayor,” said Khalida Rana, 50, a social worker in Attock. “So how can the election be fair and transparent?”
None of the rigging allegations have been proven. On Sunday in Islamabad, Information Minister Nisar Memon said the elections would be fair. He also said that he had “disassociated” himself from his daughter, who is handling publicity for PML-Q leaders such as Elahi.
Concern about turnout
The credibility of the elections could also be questioned because of low voter turnout.
So far this month, attacks on election targets have killed almost 100 people throughout the country. In the restive North-West Frontier province, many voters were expected to stay home, likely out of fear of extremist attacks, Peshawar officials said.
“If in the morning, people do not go to the polls, that will reduce the credibility of the elections,” said Malik Naveed Khan, commander of the Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary force that will help provide security for the polls nationwide. “People will say the government has failed to maintain law and order — therefore low turnout — therefore the elections are not credible. … It’s very scary, actually.”
Official election results probably will take days, but unofficial ones will start trickling in late Monday. If opposition parties can cobble together a two-thirds majority in parliament, they could vote to remove Musharraf and even try him for treason for suspending the constitution last fall.
If the parliament does threaten to get rid of Musharraf, he could opt to dissolve parliament, a move that would be unlikely.
“To me, he’s almost gone now,” said Abdul Khalil Malik, an analyst who has worked for the Musharraf government and defended his approach to fighting the war on terror. “I’ll be amazed if he can continue throughout 2008.”Top