Pakistan's national elections on tomorrow are critically important for this strife-torn country's future, as well as its western backers. Unless honestly conducted -- and this seems highly unlikely -- the vote will ignite further violence, plunging the strategic nation of 163 million into new dangers.
Only one thing is certain about tomorrow's vote. If President Pervez Musharraf and his PML-Q party do well enough to retain power or head a coalition, the election likely will have been rigged.
Musharraf has rigged every vote since seizing power in a military coup in 1999. Polls show only 15% to 20% of Pakistanis support him.
The majority backs the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party, and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
But Musharraf's powerful friends are determined to keep him in power.
In spite of Musharraf having muzzled the media, jailed thousands of opponents, purged the judiciary, and stuffed the electoral commission with henchmen, Washington, London and Ottawa still support his dictatorship and continue to hail him as a "democrat."
While claiming to be waging war in Afghanistan to bring it democracy, the western powers have been encouraging dictatorship in Pakistan.
The reason is clear: Musharraf has rented out much of his army and intelligence service to battle the Taliban in Afghanistan and tribal militants at home. His fee: Up to $1 billion monthly in secret and overt U.S. payments.
Hoping for split vote
Musharraf and his U.S. and British patrons are hoping the opposition will split the vote and leave the former general as last man standing.
The opposition, by contrast, is talking about ending the war against the Taliban and reasserting Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
The powerful military still supports Musharraf, though for how long depends on the level of post-election violence. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the new armed forces chief, was selected by Musharraf and Washington as a loyal anti-Islamist who would follow America's lead. But this capable general remains an enigma. Indian intelligence sources say the U.S. decided in early 2007 to ease the floundering Musharraf from power and make Gen. Kiyani Pakistan's new strongman.
If Pakistan is torn by widespread protests and violence over brazen electoral fraud, or suffers political deadlock, the military may overthrow the widely detested Musharraf and seize power. Gen. Kiyani is said to be reluctant to see the military re-engage in politics, but there could be no alternative.
The best outcome would be for the military to exile Musharraf and impose temporary martial law until the independent judiciary can be restored, the electoral commission made fair, media ungagged and political repression ended. Then genuine elections could be held and Pakistan returned to parliamentary government. That's assuming the soldiers don't again seize power.
Until Pakistan gets a legitimate government representing its national interests, rather than those of the western powers, the country will remain in turmoil.
Pakistan is facing spreading civil war and possible secession by two of its four provinces. The Pashtun tribal uprising ignited by the U.S./NATO occupation of Afghanistan is now spreading into Pakistan, risking a full-scale uprising by that nation's 25 million Pashtuns. Any of these earthquakes could provoke an invasion by India, met by a nuclear riposte from Pakistan.
The war in Afghanistan and heavy-handed efforts by the U.S. to bend Pakistan's military regime to its will ignited much of the current turmoil.
A majority of Pakistanis don't want their soldiers to be western mercenaries, or their leaders western yes men. They support the Taliban and the struggle for Kashmir. But the U.S. is so consumed by its war of revenge against the Taliban it cannot see any of this.
Pakistan is the Muslim world's most important nation and sole nuclear power. By treating Pakistan like a banana republic, arm-twisting Islamabad into battling its own people, and ignoring its own national interests, the U.S. is playing with fire.
© 2008 The Toronto Sun