The second-most important election of the year for Americans is scheduled to occur next Monday in Pakistan, determining whether that nuclear-armed and terrorist-infested nation moves toward democracy or chaos.
Two recent polls indicate that support for President Pervez Musharraf has fallen so low that if his party is declared the winner in the parliamentary elections, it could only be the result of fraud – potentially triggering massive demonstrations and a new national crisis. President Bush told me in an interview late last month, “I have no evidence that (Musharraf) is going to rig elections. Quite the contrary, he has told me that he wants free elections.”
However, news reports and complaints from opposition parties indicate extensive government action to skew the vote toward Musharraf’s PML-Q party – to the point where a top State Department official admitted to a Senate subcommittee that he expected the vote to be “not free and fair, but good.”
What “good” means to the administration is anything but clear. Administration officials repeatedly describe Musharraf as a “strong ally in the war on terror” and indicate they’d like to see him stay in power – or, if he has to leave, phase out gradually. Events are not going according to plan.
The administration tried to broker a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, but failed to ensure that she was kept safe during campaigning despite repeated pleas from her supporters. After an attempted assassination bombing killed 140 people in October, supporters like Boston University professor Husain Haqqani pleaded with the Bush administration to secure police escorts, electronic jamming devices and private international security contractors to protect her.
Musharraf refused them and Haqqani says U.S. officials told him that she was getting adequate protection. When she was assassinated in another bombing on Dec. 27, she was surrounded by only PPP security volunteers.
As with the October bombing, the crime scene was washed clean before investigators could gather forensic evidence, and Musharraf has rejected pleas for an international probe of her murder.
As a result, according to a poll by the independent group Terror Free Tomorrow, 58 percent of Pakistanis believe that Musharraf’s government was responsible for her assassination. In an even larger poll by the International Republican Institute, 62 percent thought that, and only 13 percent blamed al-Qaida.
In the TFT poll, with a sample of 1,157, 70 percent of the respondents said they wanted Musharraf to resign immediately. The IRI poll, with 3,485 respondents, showed that 75 percent want Musharraf out and that his job approval has plunged to 15 percent.
Most significantly, TFT found that 62 percent of voters said they would support Bhutto’s liberal PPP or the other main democratic opposition party, the PML-N headed by conservative former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and only 12 percent Musharraf’s PML-Q.
In the IRI poll, PPP garnered support of 50 percent of voters and the PML-N 22 percent. PML-Q got only 14 percent. IRI’s president, Lorne Craner, told me that the results were so lopsided that “the amount of theft required to steal this election would have to be dramatic … and obvious.” However, just in case, Musharraf has expelled IRI’s resident staff from Pakistan and has banned exit polling on election day. He is permitting only limited international election monitoring at the polls.
Moreover, one survey showed that the PML-Q has received 85 percent of news coverage on state-owned television. The national election commission overseeing vote-counting is government-controlled. Voter lists allegedly have been manipulated. And opposition activists have been intermittently jailed or attacked.
Terrorist bombings have killed attendees at PML-N and PPP rallies, but not once at PML-Q events. Violence at the polls Monday can’t be ruled out.
Perhaps the most significant poll findings are that the democratic opposition parties are on the cusp of winning two-thirds of the vote. If they controlled two-thirds of the seats in parliament, they could oust Musharraf and change the constitution to deprive any president of the power to depose an elected government.
If PML-Q is declared the winner, or if the opposition falls significantly short of a majority in parliament, there are likely to be huge street demonstrations. They’d likely start out peaceful, but could turn violent.
The stakes in this election could not be higher. As Bhutto writes in her posthumously published new book, “Reconciliation,” Pakistan is “ground-zero” in the battle within Islam between reformers and jihadists and between those who want to provoke a “clash of civilizations” with the West and those who want to prevent it.
Bush has delivered great speeches about fostering democracy in the Islamic world. Now, he has to deliver.