Though he has formally ended the de facto state of siege he imposed on Pakistan six weeks ago, Pervez Musharraf remains at war with his country’s secular, politically moderate elite. The press and private television have been hamstrung by a Musharraf-sponsored “code of conduct” that punishes criticism of the president with imprisonment. The civilian legal system remains paralyzed by a lawyers’ boycott because of Mr. Musharraf’s refusal to reinstate the Supreme Court judges he improperly removed from office. Leaders of the two largest political parties are warning about the president’s plans to rig parliamentary elections next month so that his own, immensely unpopular party remains in power.
Mr. Musharraf claims that by suspending the constitution he vanquished an unspecified “conspiracy” and made Pakistan “stronger.” In fact, his only achievement was to prevent his own removal from office as president by the Supreme Court. The price was to further destabilize the country and intensify a conflict among the centrist civilian and military forces that desperately need to unite in order to combat al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamic extremists.
The best chance of reversing the damage done by Mr. Musharraf lies in the elections scheduled for Jan. 8. If they are free and fair, Mr. Musharraf’s governing party will suffer a devastating loss: A poll released last week by the International Republican Institute showed that 70 percent of Pakistanis do not believe the government deserves another term, and 67 percent said Mr. Musharraf should resign immediately as president. According to the poll, more than 50 percent of the parliamentary vote would go to the two centrist parties that have opposed Mr. Musharraf since he seized power in a coup eight years ago — the Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif.
Ms. Bhutto is doubtful that Mr. Musharraf will permit that democratic outcome. In an interview with The Post’s Lally Weymouth, Ms. Bhutto cited specific plans for government officials to inflate the vote totals of 108 official candidates in Punjab province, leaving only 40 seats to be fairly contested by opposition parties. Such an outcome could prompt a popular uprising by opposition supporters; Ms. Bhutto has cited the example of Ukraine, where mass demonstrations forced the reversal of a rigged election in 2004. But Pakistan is not Ukraine, and post-election protests could quickly lead to violence.
That’s why the Bush administration must make a concerted effort in the next month to ensure that the elections are free. The administration has been trying to straddle the Pakistani divide in the last month, pushing Mr. Musharraf to retire from the army, lift the state of emergency and schedule elections while maintaining its close ties to him. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday publicly stressed the need for a fair vote. But President Bush should go further and make clear to Mr. Musharraf that in the event of electoral rigging, the United States will unambiguously side with Pakistan’s democratic forces.Top