Musharraf and his box of tricks
The Economist
PAKISTANIS are slightly relieved. Exactly a month before polling day, the largest of the parties that had been refusing to contest the country’s controversial general election, due on January 8th 2008, called off its boycott. This was the Pakistan Muslim League (N) headed by a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and Maulana Fazal ur Rehman, the senior partner in the five-party clerical alliance, Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA), had earlier decided to take part, leaving Mr Sharif with the choice of following suit, or risking political isolation.

The unpopular president, Pervez Musharraf, took a huge risk in calling an election which seemed likely to be seen as neither free nor fair. Is his poll being legitimised?

On the face of it, it might seem so. Only two national politicians are boycotting the event now. One is Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician. He barely won his seat in the last election, and his absence will not alter the way people perceive the legitimacy of the vote. The other is Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the fiery leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that is part of the MMA. He is a much more formidable figure. His refusal to participate will break up the MMA, which had become a significant force since winning 11% of the vote and about a fifth of the seats in the federal Parliament in 2002. It also controls two provincial governments, in Balochistan and the North Western Frontier. Its boycott may well please other parties.

But it will not end the state of uncertainty. Opposition parties have banded together to accuse the caretaker government, handpicked by President Musharraf, of pre-poll rigging. They want the chief election commissioner, also appointed by Mr Musharraf, replaced and the state of emergency imposed on November 3rd lifted. Mr Musharraf has pledged to do the latter on December 15th but is in no mood to concede any other demand.

But if the opposition is not sanguine about the election, neither is Mr Musharraf himself. Having quit as army chief on November 28th, he cannot rely on the army and needs his loyal supporters in the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) to sweep the polls in order to keep Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif at bay. But various opinion polls show his rivals are leading the pack. One, by the Washington, DC-based International Republican Institute, found that 70% of Pakistanis do not think his government deserves re-election and 67% want him to resign immediately. This raises the spectre of vote-rigging, violence and even boycotts on polling day itself.

That is not all. The government has given warning that al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists could disrupt the election by bombing rallies. This is not just scare-mongering: a suicide bomber attacked Ms Bhutto’s homecoming and killed more than 140 people. She has since restricted her movements. The fear is that terrorist attacks might justify a postponement of the election, especially if the ruling party fears a rout. Ms Bhutto claims to be the most popular politician in the country. If she loses, she says, it will be because of vote-rigging—and she would refuse to accept such a result. Mr Musharraf called the election to end his country’s political impasse. But a vote perceived as unfree and unfair might increase instability, not reduce it.

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