Pakistan's Election Won't Be Perfect, but It May Help

What can the world expect from Pakistan's controversial parliamentary elections on Oct. 10--the first national ballot since General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999? The answer is crucial not just to Pakistan's stability but also to the Bush Administration's fight against al Qaeda there and in neighboring Afghanistan.

Some opposition politicians and analysts call the vote a sham. That's because Musharraf has taken pains to ensure that he will still be in control even after a new civilian government assumes power. He has banned the two national leaders who could try to grab his limelight--exiled former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif--from running in the election. Earlier this year, he engineered a referendum to extend his presidency by five years. Recently imposed constitutional amendments allow Musharraf to dissolve the newly elected Parliament at will. And he created a National Security Council--chaired by him and including several other military officers--to oversee the Parliament's and government's work. "It's a travesty of the parliamentary system," complains Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the Defense & Strategic Studies Dept. at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

Yet others see the election, if flawed, in a positive light. More than 2,000 candidates from some 50 parties are vying for 342 seats. More Islamic fundamentalist parties are taking part in the election than in the past--a sign they may be moving into the mainstream. And for the first time, 12 new seats will be earmarked for representatives of the largely lawless tribal areas lying along the border with Afghanistan. "In the Pakistani context, the elections are an important step forward, however constrained they are," says Mahnaz Ispahani, senior fellow for South and West Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

What's critical is how well the new Parliament and Prime Minister work with Musharraf and his security council in Pakistan's new, two-tiered system of governing. At worst, obstructionism on the part of an obstreperous Parliament could lead to mounting chaos, says Ispahani. In that case, Musharraf could simply dissolve the body. But he is betting that his gradual approach to civilian rule is the way to guarantee stability. And he believes the National Security Council will check abuses by the Prime Minister, such as corruption, that have been common in the past. "At best, we can expect a chief operating officer acting upon the policy guidelines set by the CEO," says Arshad Arif, political analyst at Khadim Ali Shah Bukhari & Co., a Karachi brokerage. That would please investors, who are prospering from Musharraf's economic reforms and relatively clean government. "He's one of the few leaders who hasn't plundered the country," says a Western diplomat in Islamabad. The economy will grow 4.5% this year, and the tiny Karachi Stock Exchange is the world's best-performing market so far in 2002.

The White House is also counting on Musharraf to maintain stability. The U.S. needs Pakistan's help to hunt down al Qaeda, and Washington wants Musharraf to exercise restraint in the standoff with India over Kashmir. "We're pretty understanding of [Musharraf's] situation," says a Bush Administration official. For now, the U.S. is going along with Musharraf's gradual transition to civilian rule. The world will watch closely to see how the general's experiment works.

By Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong, with Naween A. Mangi in Karachi and Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.