PAKISTAN next week may hold its first-ever reasonably free and fair general elections.
Initial attempts by elements in the military to exclude some parties
have failed, as have efforts by some groups to mount a boycott front.
These will be the most widely contested polls Pakistan has seen.
The only danger now is that President Pervez Musharraf's entourage may
be tempted to fix the results to ensure its continued hold on power -
perhaps in the normal Third World way of switching ballot boxes to
produce a majority for one's friends.
Musharraf might find it
hard to resist the temptation. Last year, he had to declare a state of
emergency, purge the Supreme Court of unfriendly judges and bulldoze
his way to re-re-election by a legislature filled with his supporters.
With a new legislature (the national parliament plus four provincial
ones), he'd be obliged to resign and seek re-election. But, if not
filled with friends, the new legislature might shop around for a new
After all, Pakistan's political elite, now likely
to make a full comeback, never saw Musharraf as one of its own. Why
should Musharraf take the gamble?
Nor would it be hard to pull
off. The political elite is still too divided and confused about its
strategy to put up much of a resistance. The military appears
determined to stay out of politics, at least for now. The United
States, under a lame-duck administration, would have to go along with
whatever Musharraf does until after the November elections.
But, while the election might save Musharraf's presidency for a while, it could wreck Pakistan.
All four of the provinces that together form the Islamic Republic of Pakistan are showing breakaway trends.
* In Baluchistan (the largest in territory but smallest in population),
the recent "targeted killing" of Akbar Bugti, a local tribal chief and
veteran rebel, has triggered a blood feud that may not be forgotten
soon. Some parts of the vast province are now no-go areas for the
Pakistani army and bureaucracy.
The idea of an independent
Greater Baluchistan (which would also include Iran's 2.2 million Baluch
plus 1.2 million who live in Afghanistan) seems more popular than ever.
Even some of the most reasonable and moderate Baluch figures now talk
* The neighboring province of Sindh is also
witnessing the rise of secessionist groups. Using the assassination of
former Premier Benazir Bhutto (who hailed from a feudal Sindhi family)
as an excuse, these secessionists claim that their province has
received a rough deal from the Pakistani state all along.
Karachi, a mammoth urban sprawl of some 20 million people, is the
theater of a civil war within a civil war: Immigrant Muslim communities
hailing from the rest of the Indian subcontinent are trying to affirm
themselves against both the Sindhis and the Pakistani state in general.
* The Northwest Frontier province, where ethnic Pashtuns form a
majority, has always been receptive to secessionism. In recent years,
it has also become the focus of jihadi activities in Pakistan.
The Pashtun-jihadi alliance dreams of conquering Afghanistan's Pashtun
parts to create a Greater Pashtunistan that would serve as a
springboard for conquests in the name of Taliban-style Islam.
* That leaves Punjab, the province holding more than 60 percent of
Pakistan's 170 million people. Pakistani Punjabis look across the
border to the half of the historic Punjab that remained part of India
and see democracy at work, with governments changing through elections
rather than coups d'etat and insurgency. They see India
enjoying economic growth rates topping 10 percent a year, while
Pakistan barely manages half of that. India can see itself as a winner
while Pakistan remains gripped by the fear of remaining a historic
All this doesn't mean that Pakistan is
doomed. I have always maintained that a sense of Pakistani-ness has
taken shape over the last six decades; that, though an artificial
state, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is loved by a majority of its
Pakistan has always needed a system where the public
space reflects the nation's diversity. The label "Islamic Republic"
can't hide the fact that it is home to a variety of Islamic "ways," not
to mention some 22 million Christians and 6 million-plus Hindus.
Such a system can't work without free and fair elections. Where there
are no elections or election results are fixed, the only way to express
diversity and pursue different goals is civil war.
isn't a typical military dictator, like his Pakistani predecessors. He
became head of state after a coup organized by others had already
succeeded. He hasn't engaged in self-enrichment or despicable behavior.
He has tried (not always successfully) to preserve at least a veneer of
legality and constitutionality.
But now he's being put to the
supreme test of his character. Few military leaders have sacrificed
their careers to the greater cause of genuine pluralism.
latest polls show that Musharraf's political allies can't win more than
20 percent in the coming voting. Will he let the elections reflect
Pakistanis' true sentiments, even though these might go against his
political positions? Or, short of trying to change a people who might
not agree with him, will he try to write the script in his favor?
Next week could provide the answer.