In a visit as short as it was secretive, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swept through Islamabad this week with a firm reminder for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf: Ensure free and fair elections in 2007.
Pakistan's foreign ministry delivered a blunt response: "On the democratic processes in Pakistan, we do not require advice from the outside," adding that the leadership intends to hold "free and fair elections."
The diplomatic dust-up underscores the growing concerns over General Musharraf's commitment to instilling democracy – and the sensitivity of the issue for Islamabad. Musharraf is quick to point out that he has introduced sweeping democratic reform, an ambitious devolution program that promised to return power from the military-dominated center to the local level. But as elections loom, many analysts argue that those reforms have only expanded the reach of the military regime, giving it more power and influence to manipulate any vote.
"There are representative governments at the local level, but they have been so closely related to the government that they don't have their own character," says Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst in Lahore. "[I]t functions as a pillar of the regime."
Nearly two years after seizing power in a bloodless coup, Musharraf implemented a Devolution of Power Plan in 2001, heralding it as a new era of democratic reform. Elected governments at the district and subdistrict level were to provide greater autonomy from the center, greater access to public officials, and empowerment of marginalized groups such as women and the poor. Since its implementation, local governments in 101 districts have been voted into office, each headed by an elected official known as a nazim, or mayor.
A number of positive changes have resulted, reaching beyond the symbolic weight of such newly forged local institutions. For example, the allotment of one-third of all local legislative seats for women has "enabled 30,000 women to enter into formal politics at the local government level," according to a 2004 World Bank study.
But critics argue that patronage and political muscle have ensured that many nazims remain connected to the center. Those not tied to the ruling party find they have a hard time operating, with little money to fund projects and little support. That's because financial power has not devolved – the center still controls the purse strings, the leverage it uses for political ends.
"It all depends on finances. As long as the military has centralized control over resources, local governments are highly dependent on the center," says S. Akbar Zaidi, a social scientist in Karachi and author of a recent report on local government in Pakistan.
Some critics also point out that the system cannot be sustained: Built on patronage, it is bound to dissipate if and when Musharraf steps down, meaning democratic institutions will have to built from scratch again.
"When Musharraf goes, the system goes with him. Because it has no real ownership, no stake holders," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia director of the International Crisis Group.
Proponents of the devolution plan deny these charges, calling it the first substantive model to correct colonial-era laws that allowed a politics of patronage to flourish in the first place.
"What we're intending to do is shift the ownership of [political] institutions to democratically elected leaders," says Daniyal Aziz, chairman of the National Reconstruction Bureau, which oversees the devolution plan. "Every government has an influence over local governments. To say that this is the Achilles' heel of the system is not fair."
In the shorter term, observers like Ms. Ahmed say, the local government system could mean trouble when parliamentary elections roll around in 2007. Musharraf's term also expires then. With nazims dependent on them for cash, the military regime and its supporters have undue leverage over the ballot box. Mr. Aziz, however, denies such influence, arguing that if tampering were to take place, it would not be at the local level.
Despite the flaws, even the most outspoken critics say abandoning the pursuit of democracy altogether is not an option the West or Pakistan should consider. Democratic parties, they contend, are a far better option for rooting out extremism than a military regime. The latter only encourages Islamist politics, they add, by diminishing the political space to such an extent that Islamist groups become the only outspoken voice of political expression. Free and fair elections in 2007 are the best way to contain them. "If you were to have free and fair elections in Pakistan, the victors would be the moderates who support the American war on terror," says Ahmed of ICG.
Ultimately, many observers say, it is Musharraf who will decide just how free and fair those elections will be. Nawaz Sharif, the president whom Musharraf deposed, and Benazir Bhutto, his predecessor and leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, are both exiled abroad, but have indicated their intentions of returning to contest the election.
Many doubt Musharraf will ever allow them to set foot on native soil. "There are domestic compulsions on [Musharraf] which make it difficult for him to have free and fair elections," says Rizvi. "If Bhutto and Sharif are allowed to come back and engage in a movement, it will cause problems for the ruling party. [Musharraf] wants to hold on.... They could turn things against him."