December 2002 News

Does Democracy Help Pakistan?

8 December 2002
The New York Times
David Rohde

Islamabad, Pakistan - SIX weeks ago, in Pakistan's legislative elections, nobody - not the semi-authoritarian president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf; not the religious parties who think General Musharraf isn't radical enough; and not the other parties in between - emerged in full control. Now a government has finally been cobbled together through arm-twisting, party defections and backroom deals redolent of pressure from the president's office, and many here are disgusted with the whole thing.

So the question arises: Is the "guided democracy" that President Musharraf has promoted as the way to keep Pakistan's radicals under control proving to be as unstable as the "flawed democracy" he has vowed to replace?

It is a question not just for Pakistan. The election results brought Islamist radicals to power in two areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border, where Qaeda and Taliban fighters are believed to be hiding.

Under the religious parties, whose agenda includes expelling American soldiers from Pakistan and implementing Islamic law, these areas could become even more of a safe haven for terrorists.

So Washington is left with two grim alternatives: It can keep sending F.B.I. agents to aggressively pursue Qaeda members in the border area, risking a dispute with an elected government. Or the raids could be reduced, leaving the hunting of terrorists to the Pakistani intelligence agencies who worked with the Taliban in the past.

No wonder there has been little celebration in Washington over the results of this election, even though it had been promoted as a careful step toward full democracy.

In fact, the elections, which created the country's new National Assembly, have raised new questions about General Musharraf's political astuteness. Repeatedly, the president, whose power stems from his military role, vowed to be neutral. But many here say the mainstream parties would have done far better had he not tried to manipulate the election rules in favor of his allies among the divided moderates.

In the end, expectations of a rigged election dissuaded many moderates from voting at all, while the religious parties turned out voters in droves. So none of the mainstream parties won an outright mandate. And the hard-line Islamic religious parties received 10 percent of the popular vote, enough to bid seriously, if unsuccessfully, for a role in forming a national coalition.

So the battle for the soul of Pakistan, a country whose identity has vacillated h between being a more secular and a more Islamic state, remains in play, even as the American interest in events here has grown. Pakistan is the only Muslim country known to have a nuclear bomb. And American intelligence officials have concluded that Osama bin Laden remains alive - perhaps somewhere in Pakistan.

What is unclear is how to contain the effects of the elections.

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general who says he is pro-Western, said the United States could undermine the religious parties by changing foreign policies that are widely resented - toward Iraq, Israel and Afghanistan. Failing that, he said, the worst thing the United States can do is openly threaten the religious parties where they govern. Instead, he suggests that if the hard-liners are allowed to govern, Pakistanis might reject them, having seen what life under strict Islamic law is like. The raids by American F.B.I. agents in the border areas are an immediate flash point. President Musharraf can continue them - but only at the risk of being called an American lackey.

Backing down to the Islamists also involves political risks, though. Since the election, the religious parties have proved bold and politically astute, and they have leveraged their vote gains into a surprising amount of political power.

PRESIDENT MUSHARRAF, on the other hand, has been left with a reputation for clumsiness. The beneficiary of a 1999 coup himself, he banned former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both now in exile, from the race. When supporters of their parties failed to turn out, allies of President Musharraf won the most legislative seats, but not enough to form a government. They managed to do so only by persuading 10 members of Ms. Bhutto's party to defect. Six of these became government ministers.

American officials called the new government an incremental step forward in the return to democracy. Critics of military rule dismiss it as a sham. "It's not incremental," said Samina Ahmed, project director for the International Crisis Group, a policy organization. "It didn't even start."

Even with those maneuvers, the ruling coalition is perilously thin. Zafarullah Jamal was elected prime minister by a single vote, and his government must survive a confidence vote within a few months.

Meanwhile, Western diplomats say they will wait and hope. In the best outcome, they say, religious parties would fail to produce the jobs, better schools and clean government Pakistanis desperately want while economic reforms by Mr. Musharraf's government show results.

Until then, the general is in a precarious position - leading a fragile government trapped between American demands that F.B.I. raids continue and rising anti-Americanism among Pakistanis, with religious parties claiming a democratic mandate.


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