Coming Showdown in Pakistan
Pakistan’s military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, was required by his country’s Supreme Court to hold parliamentary elections by October of 2002. He has attempted to set the elections up so that he could meet the formal requirement but keep most power in his own hands. Some of his moves have a populist tinge, but their underlying premise is that he and only he knows what is best for the country.
He held a referendum last spring on his “presidency,” allowing him to avoid running against another candidate in fall elections. He won the referendum, but it seems fairly meaningless. It is not clear whether he would win if it were held now.
He required the major political parties to hold internal party elections for the first time, to choose their flagbearers. In the past, the parties were run by cronyism and the consensus of party elders. He also attempted to ban his major rivals, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif — both of whom had been prime minister in the 1990s, and both of whom are shadowed by corruption and high-handedness–from further political office.
Nevertheless, the Pakistan People’s Party voted for Benazir as party head, and she says at least that she is coming back to fight the election. Musharraf has vowed to jail her if she does, on the embezzlement charges outstanding against her. The Muslim League (N), loyal to Nawaz Sharif, also appears set to make him party head, though it is also rumored that his daughter might stand in for him. She has just left Jiddah and according to Agence France Press, is back in Pakistan with her husband. Sharif and about 200 family members and retainers were exiled to Saudi Arabia after Musharraf’s coup of fall, 1999. His daugher Maryam’s return appears to be a breach of the agreement then reached.
The parties have refused to take Musharraf’s hint and to produce new in-country leadership not tainted by past excesses. Such new leadership would have been weak and easily outmaneuvered by Musharraf, of course. If he responds to their defiance by canceling elections, or jailing party heads, or taking other Draconian action, he will look very bad in the West. Whether the parties retain enough organizational ability to defy him with rallies after nearly 3 years of dictatorship is unclear, and whether the army will be committed to the fray is uncertain. What does seem clear is that Musharraf’s dictatorial instincts are running up against a still feisty Pakistani political culture, and that the people are not yet ready to roll over and play dead.