Free, fair, or what?
Los Angeles Times

Washington may be willing to accept Musharraf’s sham election. Pakistanis, however, may not.

Elections are rarely stolen on election day, except in the world’s most primitive countries. In more developed nations such as Pakistan, they’re discreetly rigged over the months leading up to the balloting, usually by subtle manipulation of who can run, how voter lists are prepared, what the media are permitted to report and who supervises the counting of ballots and referees disputes.

Pakistan’s opposition parties have long complained about such hanky-panky in the run-up to the Feb. 18 elections, and even the Bush administration is implicitly conceding that it’s probably too late for the contest to be free and fair. Instead, it appears willing to settle for an election that is “credible” — the word Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs, used three times in congressional testimony last week.

Boucher is a career ambassador whose language is a primer in diplomatic precision. When Boucher says, “We want to see a successful transition to democracy and civilian rule. We want to see the emergence of leaders through a credible election,” that’s a deliberate signal to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his opponents that the balloting doesn’t have to be free and fair, just good enough to enable some degree of post-election power-sharing.

The Bush democracy project isn’t just dead, it has become an embarrassing reminder of excesses past. In its waning days, this administration has become so risk-averse that it will hold its nose at any sham election as long as it forestalls violence, however transient the illusion of stability may prove. If Musharraf steals the election but lets the opposition win just enough to keep it from taking to the streets, that will be good enough for Washington.

The question, however, is whether it will be good enough for Pakistanis. Two new polls suggest not. An International Republican Institute survey found that 84% of Pakistanis said their nation is headed in the wrong direction, 80% rated the government’s performance as “poor,” and 89% said Pakistan should not “cooperate with the U.S. in its war on terror.” The “throw the pro-American bums out” mood is confirmed by a poll by Gallup Pakistan. Two-thirds of respondents said stability would be enhanced if Musharraf resigned, and 47% said they don’t believe the elections will be free and fair.

The United States insists that these elections offer a chance for democracy. If so, it is only the shallowest and least representative kind. With American acquiescence, Musharraf is poised to adopt a democracy that contradicts the will of his own people.

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