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Half a Step Forward for Pakistan?

On Oct. 10, voters in Pakistan will head to the polls for their first national elections since General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999. The voting is supposed to usher in a new 342-seat Parliament and civilian government led by a Prime Minister. The ballot is important not only for stability in Pakistan and the region but also to the Bush Administration.

The U.S. is still hunting down remaining al Qaeda fighters in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And the armies of Pakistan and Indian, both nuclear powers, continue to face off over the disputed territory of Kashmir (see BW, 10/07/02, "Pakistan's Election Won't Be Perfect, but It May Help").

At the same time, Musharraf has imposed new constitutional amendments that ensure he'll control the levers of power even after a new Prime Minister and Cabinet assume office. Musharraf will remain President for five more years, and he'll lead a newly created National Security Council, which will oversee the work of the Prime Minister and Parliament.

What's more, many observers fear that Musharraf and his followers will rig the election to guarantee that a pro-Musharraf Prime Minister gets the job. The President banned two national leaders who might have challenged him -- exiled former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif -- from running in the election.

To better understand the complexities and significance of the Pakistan voting, BusinessWeek Senior Writer Rose Brady spoke with Mahnaz Ispahani, senior fellow for South and West Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in New York. Born in Pakistan, Ispahani received her PhD from the Fletcher School of Tufts University and has lived in the U.S. for 25 years. She led a delegation of international observers to the 1990 elections in Pakistan and has subsequently worked on programs of electoral reform there. Edited excerpts of her conversation with Brady follow:

Q: Will these elections be rigged?

A: These elections are not taking place on a level playing field. This has often been the case in Pakistan, and it is particularly evident in this round. Unfair elections are not only about ballot-stuffing or vote fraud. Prior to the elections, the major political parties have seen their leadership decapitated, so that second-tier leaders are running the campaigns.

The constitution has been significantly and suddenly altered through arbitrary amendments putting a new National Security Council in place and Musharraf as President. And favor has been shown to the so-called "King's party" -- a motley group of politicians closest to President Musharraf.

Q: What does that mean?

A: These elections should not be seen as a harbinger of a true democratic civilian government. In the Pakistani context, however, they are an important step forward -- however constrained they are. This is better than not having any elections. Even Benazir Bhutto's party is participating, despite her complaints that the election is rigged.

These elections should be seen as an opportunity by Pakistan's civilian parties to prove that they are better than they have been in the past. They have to be willing to take a hard look at their own internal party structures and be willing to think more clearly about economic policy.

Q: How do you think the new Parliament will function?

A: I am concerned that once a Parliament is elected, even one as divided as Musharraf seems to want, it is not going to be simply a pliant House but rather a frustrated, and therefore, cantankerous body. It could take every opportunity to challenge Musharraf, the constitutional amendments, and the U.S.

I'm not sure this is going to help the situation. Musharraf needs to gain the support of civilian politicians who are secular and mainstream to deal with extremists. Now he'll have not only the problem of the extremists but a civilian opposition united against him. He will have created another alienated group and given them a hodgepodge of powers. So I see a sort of chaotic situation resulting from these elections.

Q: How could Musharraf improve the situation?

A: If he does give the Parliament greater powers and is willing to negotiate with them, and if he goes back on some of the constitutional provisions, you could have a better process.

Q: Do Pakistani voters and observers of the country feel that Musharraf has betrayed his promise to return Pakistan to democracy?

A: I am one of those people who believed him when he took power and said he did not plan to stay in power. I was one of many people who believed him when he said that he would clean house, make a few bold reforms, and leave.

Many Pakistanis and observers of Pakistan were made despondent by a decade of unstable civil-military rule. So when he took power, Musharraf had the support of diverse friends. But when he was recently in New York, he spoke differently [than] in 1999. His agenda now is to protect his reforms -- and himself. He sees himself as the provider and guarantor of democracy, which is a contradiction in terms. While I agree with him about some of the crises brought about by civilian rule, I disagree that democratic transition can be stage-managed.

Q: What is the significance of this election for the Bush Administration?

A: The Bush Administration has been very hesitant to criticize General Musharraf, very hesitant to say anything critical about the way in which he has really made this process an undemocratic electoral process.

I think the way we're thinking about it here [in the U.S.] is that Musharraf really is the best bet, with the military and security forces he controls, to deal with the threat not just from al Qaeda but burgeoning groups of local extremists in Pakistan. That's the gamble we are making -- that it's [worth] sacrificing the democratic transition for this purpose.

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