Pakistan: Election Primer

Editor’s note: Although the Pakistani election has taken place, we are printing this article because of its very good description of the Pakistani government and political system.

Courtesy New America Media, Commentary, Arthur Dudney

Fireworks explode near a poster showing President Pervez Musharraf during celebrations by supporters after his victory in the presidential elections in Lahore October 6, 2007. Pakistani military ruler Musharraf swept the most votes in a presidential election on Saturday but he has to wait for the Supreme Court to confirm the legality of his bid before he can be declared winner. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

There will only be about a thousand people voting in Pakistan’s much anticipated presidential election this Saturday. Since most of the electors are from General Pervez Musharraf’s ruling coalition, the odds that he will not be re-elected are roughly the same as the chance that he will be struck by a meteor between now and then. What is interesting is not the pre-determined outcome of the election but the unusually harsh light being thrown on the shady world of Pakistani politics.

The main issue on the table is whether Musharaff will give up his position as the head of the military to rule as a civilian. He seems to have headed in this direction by appointing a new Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiana, to replace him as head of the military once he is re-elected President. It is galling to his critics that he is standing for office while still in uniform.

Pakistan is officially a federal republic but the very limited participation of the people in choosing leaders and the enthusiasm of the military to intervene make it difficult to call Pakistan democratic. The 342 members of the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, are elected by the people for a term of no more than five years, and the people also elect the members of the four provincial parliaments.

But that’s where democracy stops: The 100 members of the upper house of Parliament, the Senate, are chosen by the provincial parliaments with the President dictating how eight federal seats are filled. The President is chosen by an electoral college consisting of the members of the Senate, the National Assembly and the four Provincial Assemblies. In contrast to most parliamentary systems, the President has the real power rather than the Prime Minister. Furthermore, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), which is the military intelligence service, is deeply involved in politics.

But as if these buffers from the wrath of the people weren’t enough, extra precautions have been taken to ensure a predetermined outcome. The last parliamentary elections were held on October 10, 2002. The process was called deeply flawed by Human Rights Watch, which accuses General Musharraf’s party, the PML(Q), of voter intimidation and other crimes.

Now, five years later, it is more than a little opportunistic for the President to call an election with literally four days remaining in the term of a Parliament, in which his supporters have the majority. Given the tumultuous events this year (the Lal Masjid debacle, hijinks over the firing of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the agitation by Islamic parties for less participation in the Western-backed “War on Terror” and, lest we forget, the tragicomedy of Nawaz Sharif’s 5-minute return to Pakistan), Musharraf’s party would certainly have lost seats had a parliamentary election been called. In any case, there are not many choices: Only five presidential candidates have been officially certified and General Musharraf heads the list. No one outside of Pakistan has heard of the other four.

There are a few minor obstacles to Gen. Musharraf’s re-election. First there is the question of legitimacy, which hardly exists anyway, given the circumstances of the election. Eighty-five opposition MPs resigned in protest but the symbolism accomplishes little. The legal challenges are more threatening: On Monday, a petition contesting Gen. Musharraf’s standing as a presidential candidate was presented at the High Court in Sindh along with two other petitions to the Supreme Court in Islamabad.

The Sindh petition tends that because General Musharraf holds an “office of profit” in government (that is, he is Chief of Army Staff), he cannot be President without resigning it and waiting two years. Given that Musharraf started his career in politics as a military dictator — and arguably remains one — this court challenge is laden with irony.

Then there are the gadflies: former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Mr. Sharif was the Prime Minister deposed by Gen. Musharraf’s 1999 coup, so the two men hardly have a cordial relationship. Because of the men’s falling out, the ruling Pakistani Muslim League splintered into two factions, the PML(Q), which supports Gen. Musharraf, and the PML(N), Mr. Sharif’s party. Mr. Sharif tried to return to Pakistan in September but upon his arrival was immediately put back on a plane to Saudi Arabia, where he has been living in exile.

What is unclear is Mrs. Bhutto’s possible role after the election since her faction, the Pakistan People’s Party, which has a sizeable minority in Parliament, has been in power-sharing talks with the government for months.

Mrs. Bhutto, who lives in London, has declared that she will return to Pakistan on October 18th and the government has apparently expunged the corruption charges against her. On the one hand, Dawn reported October 3 that Gen. Musharraf has “drop[ped] the clearest hint to date of restoring civilian rule” whereas the BBC quoted Benazir Bhutto on the same day as calling the power sharing talks “totally stalled.” The next day, Mrs. Bhutto was “optimistic” again.

Clearly demonstrating the arbitrariness of presidential power in Pakistan, for Mrs. Bhutto to become Prime Minister, as is widely expected, the President would have to reverse his decree of 2002 limiting Prime Ministers to two terms. (She has already been Prime Minister twice, from 1988-1990 and 1993-1996.)

Democracy where the victor can be accurately predicted well in advance of the polls’ opening is obviously not really democracy.

Pakistan is probably unique in the world in having so many trappings of democracy without democracy itself. In the next few weeks, almost anything could happen — moves towards more democracy or less — but General Pervez Musharraf will certainly be President.

— Courtesy: SAJAforum


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