The Bush administration has launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to persuade Pakistan to free democratic activists and lawyers, lift press restrictions and allow international observers into polling stations to ensure that the delayed parliamentary election is deemed credible by Pakistanis and by the international community, according to U.S. officials.
In their first conversation since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called President Pervez Musharraf on New Year’s Day to discuss the importance of the election next month as a means of restoring stability in a nuclear-armed country that is also on the front line of fighting extremism. Other U.S. officials and diplomats in Islamabad are engaged in an intense diplomatic push this week, officials said.
“What the Pakistani government and Pakistani officials need to do now is to make the best use of that time between now and February 18 . . . to make sure that independent media is able to operate, to make sure that those who want to peacefully participate in the political process can do so, that any restrictions on political parties are lifted,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday.
“You need to allow those candidates and those who are legitimate participants in the political process to access that free media, and to make sure that you have the most free, fair and transparent electoral process in the run-up to the election, on Election Day, as well as after Election Day, as votes are being counted,” he said.
U.S. officials say they are trying to capitalize on the shock of Bhutto’s assassination last Thursday and the growing threat of instability to pressure Musharraf to take steps he has resisted for months.
The new U.S. push comes amid growing calls for Musharraf to step aside because an election will no longer be enough to stabilize Pakistan. A report by the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan international monitoring group, warned yesterday that Pakistan’s moderate majority is unlikely to settle for anything less than genuine parliamentary democracy without the controversial former general.
“Stability in Pakistan and its contribution to wider anti-terror efforts now require rapid transition to legitimate civilian government,” the ICG concluded. “This must involve the departure of Musharraf, whose continued efforts to retain power at all costs are incompatible with national reconciliation.”
Musharraf has placed his political future and the regime’s survival ahead of all other Pakistani interests, the report warns, thus generating a showdown with the moderate center that could threaten the federation’s ability to hold together.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the next six weeks are critical in determining whether Pakistanis can move beyond the loss of the leader of the largest opposition movement. Washington is also pushing Islamabad to reform the election commission so it is no longer seen as a Musharraf prop and to allow exit polling as a way to help verify voting trends with the government count, U.S. officials said.
The International Republican Institute, a democracy advocacy group, pulled out of monitoring the election because of unusual restrictions placed on monitoring groups by the Pakistani government and because of security concerns. Pakistan denied the IRI permission to conduct an exit poll and demanded notification of polling places to be visited. It also issued a 150-page manual with restrictions on observers that made it all but impossible to issue a credible report on the elections, said Lorne W. Craner, IRI president and assistant secretary of state for democracy until 2004.
“We have observed 140 elections over the last 20 years, and we have not encountered anything like that before,” he said. The State Department wants the IRI to reconsider, but it is still undecided, Craner said.
Experts say the United States has an opportunity to help Pakistan salvage an election process that was badly discredited even before Bhutto’s assassination.
“The next six weeks give the U.S. a new lease on life in terms of pressing Pakistan to take some of the steps we’ve wanted them to take for the last year,” said Daniel Markey, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow who served at the State Department until a year ago. “But the U.S. needs to do more.”
After Bhutto’s death dramatically altered Pakistani politics, Musharraf will be under far greater scrutiny, with growing public expectations that a victory for opposition forces is the only credible outcome of a fair election, said Xenia Dormandy, a former White House adviser on South Asia now at Harvard’s Belfer Center. “Perception is reality,” Dormandy said. “Even if Musharraf won fairly, no one will believe it. He’s in a very tough spot.”