Missiles herald Pakistani election

Will Pakistani missile tests boost support for pro-Musharraf candidates in Thursday's election?

Most world leaders probably wouldn't consider testing nuclear-capable missiles as a constructive way to stir up political enthusiasm ahead of national elections. But in Pakistan, two recent missile tests illuminate multiple political goals.

In a poor country where most people are uneducated and also staunchly proud of their nuclear-weapons program, rattling the saber at arch-rival India is always a good way to bring out the voters.

President Pervez Musharraf, the Army chief who took power in a 1999 coup, isn't running in the parliamentary and regional assembly elections that take place Thursday, the first since 1997. He already won a five-year presidential term in an April referendum that critics charged was rigged in his favor.

The general is under pressure to lend democratic legitimacy to his government, but preelection surveys indicate many Pakistanis are skeptical about voting in the current political climate. What better way to stir political passions, say analysts, than displaying Pakistan's nuclear firepower.

Last Friday, amid renewed tension with India over disputed Kashmir, Pakistan test-fired medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Within a few hours, India responded with a missile test of its own.

Yesterday, Pakistan performed the second missile test in a week.

The tests are seen as a message to the Pakistani people – and to India – that Musharraf will remain hawkish on Kashmir – the Himalayan state which both countries claim – despite his often contradictory role as an ally in the US war on terror.

Though Pakistan supported Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban government for most of its time in power, Musharraf abruptly switched allegiance after the Sept. 11 attacks, assisting the US military effort in Afghanistan.

He has come under US pressure to crack down on homegrown extremist groups, some of which have ties to Al Qaeda, but who were also quietly backed by Pakistan to foment violence and unrest in Indian-held Kashmir.

"Pakistan didn't want to do this, we were kicked into doing it," says Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, a retired associate of the Pakistani president. "But it was a good thing. In a way Sept. 11 was a godsend because it forced Musharraf to take a stand on this messy situation."

Firing off missiles is also Musharraf's way of reminding Pakistanis that he's not entirely under Washington's thumb.

The US administration disapproves of Pakistan's nuclear program, and a flurry of June diplomacy by the US and Britain was credited with pushing India and Pakistan back from the brink of war. India and Pakistan have posted more than 1 million troops along their joint border for more than a year.

Although Musharraf has publicly pledged that the government elected this week will soon be running the country, local journalists and campaigning politicians have so far paid more attention to the very man who is already in office. It's expected that the general will continue calling the shots even after a new legislature is installed.

Many complain that a wave of restrictions and alleged government interference has made the election itself virtually pointless.

Government decrees cut the campaign period to half its normal span, and disqualified all candidates without university degrees, thus barring about 90 percent of Pakistan's largely illiterate population from standing for office.

The major political parties have splintered into so many factions and breakaway groups that it is all but impossible that one group will win a majority, or even wield major influence, in the 342-member parliament.

More than 70 parties are registered to run for seats, and eight to 10 are considered main contenders.

Significantly, in a country where political personalities count for more than a party's platform or policies, the two major political figures, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have been banned from running for office.

Both former prime ministers live in exile – Mrs. Bhutto in Dubai, Mr. Sharif in Saudi Arabia – after being thrown out of office in the last decade on charges of corruption and misrule.

Though the Election Commission of Pakistan has ruled that neither can run for office this time around, both are playing politics from abroad, and their parties continue to rate highly in pre-election polls.

Meanwhile a breakaway faction from Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League has cast its lot in favor of Musharraf's government, amid accusations that Pakistan's intelligence services cajoled, bribed, and even threatened members of the group to do so.

"It is probably the most rigged of rigged elections in Pakistan's history," says Akbar S. Babar, a spokesman for Imran Khan, a cricket hero turned opposition politician. Despite efforts to keep Bhutto and Sharif out of the future government, Musharraf has nonetheless permitted a coalition of religious parties, some with links to violent extremist groups, to contest the polls.

Religious parties, who are anti-America and want to install strict Islamic rule in Pakistan, however, have never won more than 15 percent of the parliament in past elections.

Yet insiders say the Pakistani president feared being branded un-Islamic if he banned the extremists, something advisers warned him could lead to widespread unrest, or even topple him from power.

"This country has never been stable from Day 1," says Sangeen Wali Khan, a candidate with the Awami National Party running for the Northwest Frontier Province. "But this is the worst instability we have seen."

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