No Telling Where Pakistan Is Headed

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The Toronto Star

No Telling Where Pakistan Is Headed

by
Haroon Siddiqui

His name is not on the ballot but the vote is all about him.Tomorrow's election in Pakistan - 80 million voters are to pick a federal parliament and four provincial assemblies - has become a referendum on Pervez Musharraf.

Depending on the outcome, he may quit or be impeached by a potential coalition of the late Benazir Bhutto's Peoples Party and others.

The country itself faces a tumultuous period, perhaps worse than what it has endured in the last year.

Musharraf is as unpopular among Pakistanis as George W. Bush, whose bidding he is seen to be doing in the war on terror. Osama bin Laden is outpolling both.

Musharraf has alienated not just the jihadists and non-violent Islamists but also the secularists.

He has frittered away the goodwill he had garnered by nursing a near-bankrupt economy to health, promoting moderate Islam, freeing the media, opening political space for women and turning a pariah state into a global player.

He was undone by his authoritarianism: firing the chief justice, squashing the lawyers' pro-democracy movement, ordering his re-election by lame-duck assemblies and changing the constitution through presidential decrees.

He even misjudged the militants in the tribal areas along Afghanistan, alternatively bombing them and befriending them. They have brought their war to the urban centres with suicide bombings.

This has unnerved the middle class, his core constituency, already reeling from high inflation and the absence of law and order. In Karachi, armed thugs snatch cars, mobile phones or gold bangles and necklaces. Women have taken to wearing costume jewellery.

The one political party that backs Musharraf - "the king's party" - is sitting at 14 per cent. Bhutto's party, benefiting from a wave of sympathy following her assassination, is riding high. The party of another equally discredited and corrupt former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is running second.

Given the choice between bad and bad - a former general vs. professional politicians - voters are opting for the democratic bad.

The Islamist parties are trailing. They once backed Musharraf. And their anti-Americanism, which in 2002 won them power in two tribal provinces, is not enough to overcome their poor record in office (proof that it's best to let democracy deal with the Islamists, as opposed to cracking down on them, as in Algeria, Egypt or the Gaza Strip).

It remains to be seen if tomorrow's election will be "free, fair, transparent and peaceful," as Musharraf promised. Given the heavy presence of both foreign and local monitors, rigging may not be as easy as in the past.

A definitive judgment would be difficult, given that politicians routinely blame their poor performance on fraud. They are already threatening street protests.

Bhutto's widower, Asif Zardari, may want to revive a deal she had with Musharraf that he be the president and she his prime minister.

Zardari is not contesting a seat and may anoint someone else, playing kingmaker instead. Or he may win a seat in a by-election. Either way, it'd be sweet revenge against the president who had kept him in jail on corruption charges.

Sharif, also not running (he has been disbarred), holds a bigger grudge against Musharraf, who toppled him in a 1999 coup.

Sharif wants to join Zardari to muster the needed two-thirds majority in the National Assembly to undo all of Musharraf's decrees - and impeach him.

If it came to that, Musharraf would quit. He has already said so. If he were to change his mind, the army may yank its support. Loyalty to a former chief is a virtue but loyalty to the institution ranks higher.

There's no telling what might unfold in the days ahead.

As for the U.S., which calls Musharraf "an indispensable ally," all it wants is a democratic sheen to his rule, to battle on against the Taliban and Al Qaeda and chair the National Command Authority, which safeguards the nuclear weapons.

Haroon Siddiqui appears Thursday and Sunday. hsiddiq@thestar.ca

© 2008 The Toronto Star

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