A news photograph of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf in a green pagaree, an ornamental turban, was proof enough that the somewhat dapper and, perhaps, truly disinterested general has got the political bug. It is unfortunate, though, that Musharraf wanted his election risk-free.
Like Henry Ford’s Model T, which came in any color you wanted so long as it was black, Musharraf’s April 30 referendum did not offer his public a choice. It read: “For the survival of the local government system, establishment of democracy, continuity of reforms, end to sectarianism and extremism, and to fulfill the vision of Quaid-e-Azam [the “Great Leader,” a reference to Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah], would you like to elect President Gen. Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan for five years?”
The self-appointed military president felt it necessary to shore up his power before going through with his court-ordered duty to allow a national assembly to be elected in October. He has now got his chair through something like an election. But if he had followed the constitutional process and campaigned for parliamentary candidates who could in turn elect him indirectly as president, voters would have had a choice and the election would have had an issue. Pakistan is in dire straits. Poverty levels have doubled in the past decade. The country is now as poor as India, and India’s economy is growing while Pakistan’s remains stagnant. Sectarian violence continues to mount, with doctors belonging to the minority Shiite sect of Islam the latest targets. Jihadism, which we read so much about in our newspapers lately, is being attacked, with questionable resolve, as a security issue rather than the political problem that it is.
The restoration of international aid and credit after Musharraf committed to the American side of the “War on Terrorism” last fall could brighten the country’s prospects. But Pakistan’s crisis is in the first place a political one, and Musharraf’s referendum only undermined the country’s politics. When, as in earlier eras, a general backed by the United States uses an empty semblance of an electoral process to legitimize himself, he sows cynicism about democracy even before he launches “democratization.” For Pakistan to develop the political means to address its many pressing problems, its people need to vote for their leaders, even those with disturbing ideological views, in open elections. More important, they need to be given the chance to vote out their governments-something that has never happened in Pakistan’s intermittent episodes of elected government.
The contrast between the pictures of empty polling stations for the April 30 referendum and the government’s claim of voter turnout as high as 60 percent is troubling. Reports like one from the BBC of a young man in the Karachi slum of Lyari who says he voted eight times are evidence of something more than election irregularities; the referendum raises questions not just of good governance. An unwillingness to risk their positions before the public is the hallmark of Pakistan’s military and civilian politicians alike. But without taking such risks a responsive, constructive politics cannot emerge and the appeal of puritan Islam cannot really be countered. Andy McCord writes frequently on politics and culture in Pakistan and India.