Naveed Ahmad
(RIEAS Research Associate, he works for Pakistani TV channel Geo News, Germany's DW-TV and Zurich-based ISN Security Watch besides writing papers and delivering lectures for think-tanks in Asia, Europe and the United States)

Copyright: Naveed Ahmad on line

Ahead of crucial and controversial elections set for February 18, Pakistani ruler General Pervez Musharraf is touring the EU and Commonwealth headquarters respectively besides meeting the world leaders in Davos. The weeklong visit is aimed at bolstering his image after his desperate moves to perpetuate his rule since March 2007. Musharraf has a daunting agenda for his visit. He is there to not only promise the world fairness of elections but also remove doubts of the safety of his country’s nuclear weapons. With the assassination of popular liberal leader Benazir Bhutto a few weeks earlier, not only political situation aggravated within the country but fresh alarms were also triggered about Islamabad’s claim of curbing extremism with zero-tolerance.

Last March, the Pakistani military ruler decided to remove the independent-minded chief justice but without any legal authority and credible evidence. Musharraf’s attempt outraged the lawyers, human rights activists and opposition politicians and the country faced the worst ever protests against the military regime. The government failed to prove charges against the chief judge, Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and a high-powered Supreme Court panel restored him with full honour. The Pakistani nation lauded the Supreme Court decision while the judiciary enjoyed its new found independence. High profile cases such shadowy privatization deals, high-handedness of the intelligence agencies and vital constitutional matters such as candidature of General Pervez Musharraf for presidency made headlines on daily basis.

Fearing failure to stand a Supreme Court full bench examination into his candidature for presidency, General Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution, sought a fresh oath of allegiance from judges to his person and blacked out TV news channels on the cable, except for state-own propaganda tool, Pakistan Television. Over 75 percent of justices including the chief justice himself refused to validate Musharraf’s action, thus illegally removed from their office and replaced by handpicked judges.

Thousands of lawyers, civil society activists and political workers were arrested and tortured without any legal proceedings against them. Meanwhile, the new judges cleared Musharraf for presidential elections and okayed host of key vital constitutional abnormalities in his favour. After Musharraf got himself elected as president for yet another term, he allowed the return of Benazir Bhutto, the country’s two-time elected prime minister and liberal-minded leader of popular Pakistan People’s Party.

Her mammoth welcome procession was hit by twin explosions, claiming the lives of over 150 people and sending her strong message of staying away from the public. On December 27, she died of bullet wounds in the head only a few kilometers from the country’s General Headquarters. The country plunged into unprecedented unrest and violence in the recent history while Benazir’s party blamed the country’s establishment for the brutal murder. Seeing sympathies for Benazir’s PPP soar enormously in the wake of her murder, the elections were postponed from January 8 and rescheduled for February 18.

At the same time, the army faced increasing resistance from the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan-bordering tribal areas and neighboring Northwestern Frontier Province. Suicide bombings continue to claim lives of security personals as well as common people as the government intensifies its rhetoric to fight terror. Death of Benazir Bhutto and Islamabad’s failure to deal with terror threats is now casting doubts across the globe about the safety of Pakistan nuclear arsenal.

Aware of the intricacies of handling nuclear arsenal, many years ago the Pakistani armed forces erected Strategic Plans Division led by a lieutenant general, which not only deals with the doctrinal issues but also safety of the nuclear arsenal. However, the weakening writ of General Musharraf has raised this alarm yet again since 1998. Since Pakistan has been getting American financial and technical cooperation in securing its nuclear arsenal, Washington has openly dispelled the fears regarding the nukes falling into wrong hands. However, the real danger in Pakistan lies in the lack of public mandate in the absence of free and fair elections on February 18 or their postponement in the guise of terror threats.

Owing to bloody military operations involving countless civilian casualties in Pashtun areas and increasing resentment in Sindh province after the murder of Benazir Bhutto against Musharraf and the establishment, the forthcoming elections are set to define the country’s fate. Not only the election monitors’ have complained of absence of level-playing field for the opposition parties and candidates but they have also recorded certain fundamental changes in election laws with severe consequences over their fairness.

In the absence of a liberal-minded political leader, Musharraf may win back some of the lost support from his western mentors such as Washington and EU while the Commonwealth may not soften its stance. However, the west may overlook the manner in which Musharraf gained a fresh term in presidency but the forthcoming election process would remain in the scanner. With the opposition parties rejecting the caretaker government due to its partisan leanings, absence of an independent judiciary and a media free to report on the election process, Islamabad would be monitored closely as the polls date draws near.

Though two leading political parties – Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League – are participating in the election with serious reservations, Baloch and Pashtun nationalist parties along with parties led by former cricketer Imran Khan and Islamist Qazi Hussain Ahmad have boycotted the process. Imran Khan of the Justice Movement Party, speaking on behalf of the likeminded leaders, said, “Pakistan can return to normalcy if the elections are held without Musharraf in command . . . otherwise no one would accept the results.” While the Gallup polls predict low voter turnout on February 18, they also predict better showing of the PPP in the elections.

Given the politically and emotionally-charged atmosphere in the country, free and fair elections are only way to save this 170-million strong nation from sliding into deeper chaos. With the military command passed on to General Ishfaq Kiani, known for his non-political views and purely professional traits and a truly elected prime minister in the office, Islamabad would continue to pursue anti-terror policies in its own best interest. Washington’s faith in one-man rule has failed to stand its ground as al-Qaeda and Taliban still haunt the world peace.

Moreover, fragmented and dis-organised Islamist parties have little chance entering the power corridors this time around. Democracy in Pakistan would not only help the west pursue its war against terror in more fruitful manner but also solve its fundamental problems of state-building and national cohesion.

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