Weakening Pakistan
The New York TImes

Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, insists his outrageous power grabs are aimed at stabilizing and protecting his country. His authoritarian maneuvers only weaken the country’s already feeble political institutions and fuel more political turmoil.

Turmoil is not what anyone needs in a country that is both armed with nuclear weapons and supposedly helping lead the fight against Al Qaeda. On Friday, dozens of people were killed in a bombing, apparently aimed at one of Mr. Musharraf’s political allies.

Mr. Musharraf’s decision to end six weeks of martial law was long overdue, as was his decision last month to finally quit his army post and take the presidential oath of office as a civilian. Any hope that he was nudging the country toward a genuine democracy was quashed when he also moved to exempt his own most controversial actions from any court challenges. That means his highly questionable election to a new five-year term will stand, as will his dismissal of 13 Supreme Court judges and more than 40 High Court judges.

Mr. Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, so his rule lacks legitimacy no matter how he manipulates the country’s legal underpinnings. But instead of trying to strengthen Pakistan’s institutions, he is continuing to undermine them for his own power and profit. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s citizens leave no doubt that they’re sick of the former general. A poll this month by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (affiliated with the Republican Party) found that 67 percent of Pakistanis want Mr. Musharraf to resign immediately.

As ever, criticism from the Bush administration has been unacceptably muted. New doubts were raised last week about Mr. Musharraf’s proclaimed commitment to the fight against terrorism — the main justification for Washington’s enabling — when a Pakistani suspect accused of plotting to blow up trans-Atlantic airplanes somehow managed to slip out of his handcuffs and escape from custody.

Next month’s parliamentary elections will be another test of Mr. Musharraf’s intentions — and Washington’s influence. As usual, he holds most of the cards: the press is muzzled; the judiciary is packed with his loyalists; and there are serious doubts about whether political opponents will be allowed to campaign freely. One of Mr. Musharraf’s main rivals, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has been permitted to stand for election, but the other, Nawaz Sharif, has been barred.

Mr. Musharraf insists that he wants a free election but has sown grave doubts about whether he will work with whoever wins. His friends in Washington need to tell the former general and the Pakistani military — no matter what the polls say about his unpopularity — that trying to rig this vote is unacceptable.

Congress and the administration took some steps to restrict aid to Pakistan after Mr. Musharraf declared emergency rule, but more pressure may be necessary to get the former general’s attention. Most important, Pakistanis need to turn out in force on election day to ensure that everybody — not just the former general — can have a say in Pakistan’s future.

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