Originally posted in February 2008

Pakistan faces a paradox. Most political observers believe that Pakistan urgently needs free, fair, and transparent elections, but none is convinced that the elections would usher in an era of participatory governance, internal harmony, and stability in the country.

These fears were underscored by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, leader of the main opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), on December 27, 2007 in the city of Rawalpindi, which houses the headquarters of the all-powerful Pakistan Army. This incident removed a leader from the political scene who enjoyed widespread popular appeal and represented liberal politics and a moderate socio-cultural disposition. This was a major setback for the resurgence of liberal and moderate politics in Pakistan that challenged Islamic extremism as well as the authoritarian governance by President Pervez Musharraf.

Bhutto supporters were outraged by the government’s conflicting claims of how Bhutto was killed — claims ostensibly aimed to dispel the impression that the government, especially the intelligence agencies, was involved directly or indirectly in the assassination.

The assassination has three major implications for the elections and the subsequent situation. First, it adds a new set of grievances to the already existing internal tensions caused by religious extremism and violence, the troubled law and order situation, inflation and price increases for essential food items, and socio-economic inequities. Many political activists view the assassination as a bid by the Musharraf-led Pakistani establishment — under pressure since the removal of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudhry on March 17 — to remove the latest challenge to its dominant role.

Second, since the assassination there has been a noticeable shift in support from the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) to the PPP and Nawaz Sharif faction of the PML, called the PML-N. Though it is difficult to gauge the full implication of the sympathy factor, the government has taken steps to neutralize this trend.

Third, Pervez Musharraf has become more controversial than ever. The opposition political parties and most societal groups view him as the major obstacle to their efforts to work towards the promotion of democracy and internal harmony. Some of them have called for his resignation.

Pervez Musharraf has expressed his determination to hold on to power because, like all Pakistani military rulers, he views himself as the guarantor of Pakistan’s stability and as a bulwark against Islamic extremism and terrorism. This view is hardly shared by the non-official political circles, who view him as part of Pakistan’s problems.

Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly promised to hold free, fair, transparent, and peaceful elections. However, empirical evidence suggests that the electoral process is flawed in many respects. The PPP released a dossier on election malpractices prepared under the instruction of its slain leader. The PML-N has also issued detailed data on pre-poll manipulation in favor of the pro-Musharraf PML-Q. These complaints include the partisan role of Musharraf and the caretaker federal and provincial governments, political manipulation through district nazims in the local government system who control district-level administration, and the use of the bureaucratic machinery, official transport, and other resources to the advantage of the pro-Musharraf PML-Q. There are complaints about the role of the intelligence agencies, especially the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), an army-dominated agency, and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), a civilian outfit headed by a retired brigadier known for his close links with Musharraf.

Some independent Pakistani organizations also have talked of procedural and operational flaws. The latest comments by the Citizens Group on Electoral Process (CGEP), the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan clearly show that they find the pre-election processes to be deficient in many respects. Almost all groups and parties have strong reservations about the impartiality of the Election Commission that appears helpless in checking the excesses of the pro-Musharraf political leaders. Musharraf has repeatedly dismissed these claims.

Much depends on what happens on and around the polling day. If a perception develops on that day that the election has been stolen by the official circles, the opposition parties and the societal groups are expected to challenge this in the streets. In the event that the major opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, emerge as the leading parties, they will mobilize support from the smaller parties and independents to form the government, clip the powers of Musharraf and, if possible, remove him through impeachment.

Musharraf is working on an alternate strategy to consolidate his hold. This is likely to involve the manipulation of the elected members through the intelligence agencies and by material incentives. He will endeavor to put together a coalition around his main loyalists, i.e. the PML and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). They are expected to be joined by the pro-Taliban Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam led by Fazlur Rahman (JUI-F), some independents, and others by splitting the opposition.

The bottom line is that Pakistan will pass through a difficult and uncertain time while setting up a new government. In the event that the opposition performs better, the making of the opposition government and its smooth functioning will be problematic. This will limit Musharraf’s options to protect his controversial re-election for the second term and his commanding role in governance, but he is not expected to give in to the opposition quietly.

The post-election administration will be faced with the troubled legacies of the pre-election government regarding Islamic extremism and terrorism, the tenuous law and order situation, steep price hikes and shortages of food commodities, and fast-growing socio-economic disparities which have accentuated regional polarization.

Of late, the Musharraf government has escalated the level of military operations against hardline Islamic groups in the tribal areas and Swat, ostensibly to show its determination to the international community to root out extremism and terrorism. But the fact of the matter is that the Musharraf government’s ambiguous approach towards Islamic militancy has enabled these elements to entrench themselves in these areas and expand their strong influence in several adjoining districts of the Frontier province. They enforce strict Islamic codes in these areas by the threat of violence. They also have been successful in launching suicide attacks and bombings in major cities and, if we accept the official explanation, Benazir Bhutto was killed by one such group. The growing threat of Islamic extremism and violence by these groups poses the most serious challenge to civic order in Pakistan.

Another serious challenge is the growing economic pressures on the common people against the backdrop of the official claims of impressive economic development. The official statements on the “economic boom” are meaningless for ordinary people, who, for example, have had to stand in line for hours to get one bag of wheat flour, though the government claimed in 2006-07 that Pakistan had a bumper wheat crop. The gas shortages and electric power outages add to their miseries. Temporary workers, as well as self-employed and daily wage earners have been hit extremely hard by surging prices and shortages of essential commodities.

These troubled realities on the ground create serious doubts about the prospects of stability and internal harmony in the post-election period. What Pakistan faces today is the outcome of Musharraf’s highly centralized and authoritarian system of governance, the pattern of denial of the existence of problems and refusal to accept responsibility for them, and policies of seeking politically expedient solutions to hold on to power. Now, these policies have unraveled.