Musharraf at 15%, Pakistan’s future on the edge

In early December, I received correspondence from the International Republican Institute in Washington inviting me to participate as a short-term election observer as part of that group’s mission in Pakistan. The NGO is headed by US Senator John McCain and provides democratic infrastructure assistance to emerging democracies. I was to travel to Islamabad via Dubai on January 2nd to connect with the group there to coordinate with them in establishing a legitimate international presence in that country to judge the free and fairness of those elections. While the Canadian government via Elections Canada declined to send observers due to Musharraf’s imposition of what amounted to Martial law, NGO observation was still necessary in order to make the call on the legitimacy of the elections even though most everyone that has been following the situation highly doubted that those elections would be run with any semblance of the democratic ideal. Yet, helping people secure the principles of democracy is a worthwhile cause even if it happens slowly and even if it comes via an international well-document fact-based shaming of any government if and when it holds insincere elections.

During my Christmas break, having my flight itinerary in hand and my letter of offer sent from DC, I trekked out to the Pakistani consulate in northern Toronto to have my visa application processed. Having no family in Pakistan or any education or business interests there, the consular officers were initially skeptical of the papers I was presenting them. One gentlemen who was waiting with his son who was visiting to visit his ancestral home for the first time asked me why I was going to Pakistan. I told him about my plans to help observe the elections there and he seemed sincerely pleased that I was going. Pakistan was recently ejected from the Commonwealth, yet despite this fact it has a close history in the Western democratic tradition. Because of this fact, I have a sincere hope that Pakistan is still fertile soil for a slowly growing democracy, even if there are elements there that are actively salting the earth either for sake of power or for terror.

Needless to say, my trip was canceled by IRI shortly after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto as the election, to take place January 8th was postponed to late February. The group, that has been in Pakistan for years, was recently told to clear out its expat staff by Musharraf’s government. The opinion polling done by IRI in Pakistan are considered to be the most accurate measure of popular opinion there and the government was not probably not pleased that this expression of popular opinion was hurting their electoral prospects. If Musharraf’s government seeks to suppress the publication of popular opinion in this way, I fear how they will act when it is expressed during an election. IRI expats are still packing up their offices in Pakistan and they’ve released a final poll to mark their departure. President Musharraf has 15% popular support in that country and it’s likely to slide further. Musharraf’s power has been sustained by a precarious balance between the military (which has pockets of sympathy for the Taliban and al Queda) and enough of the electorate. The former general gave up his stars to appease popular concern over his position as the top military officer and effective head of state. That said, I was shocked with the offhand ease and ignorance of Stephane Dion’s recent musings about putting NATO troops in Pakistan. Such talk about an intervention would only serve to further destabilize a country that is dangerously pivoting between anarchy and stability.

The people of Pakistan are expected to express their will soon. If Musharraf’s party loses in the upcoming elections (if they are held), the outcome is uncertain. Let’s hope that the government and military respects their decision.

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