Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf's crackdown on opposition activists over the weekend has raised concern in Pakistan, and in the US, about whether both next week's presidential vote and the upcoming general elections will be truly democratic.
Pakistani police rounded up dozens of opposition supporters in Islamabad on Monday after breaking up a protest outside the Supreme Court, which is hearing a case challenging the constitutional validity of General Musharraf's dual role as president and Army chief. The court will deliver its verdict on Wednesday. Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, is seeking another five-year term. Several senior opposition leaders were also detained, reports Reuters.
A spokesman for Sharif, who Musharraf ousted in 1999 and deported to Saudi Arabia hours after flying home on September 10, said about 125 party leaders and activists had been detained. An Interior Ministry official said about 50 activists had been held.
Police with riot shields and batons blocked roads to the Supreme Court in central Islamabad and at least 12 opposition activists were detained, a Reuters witness said.
Acting president of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) Javed Hashmi was sent to Adiala jail yesterday by the local police. Raja Zafarul Haq, chairman of PML (N) was placed under house arrest and also made incommunicado. All of his land line and cell phones were disconnected.
The arrests were roundly condemned by leading Pakistani newspapers on Tuesday. A Pakistani daily, The News, called the move an "ominous harbinger of what lies in store for the country's electoral politics in the coming few weeks." It also said that Musharraf's "hamfistedness shatters the government's oft-repeated claim that it wants to give all political parties a level playing field in the coming elections."
However, this, along with reports that the civil bureaucracy (at the level of the district coordination officer) and the police have been tasked with ensuring that the MPs report to the assemblies on October 6 and cast their vote, already gives the impression that pre-election rigging is underway -- and its first and immediate beneficiary seems to be none other than the president himself. It is perhaps the first time that a government has detained opposition party MPs so as to prevent them from resigning from parliament.
In a rare criticism of Musharraf's government, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on Monday that the arrests were disturbing, reports Reuters.
"Look, there are troubling elements here," Rice told Reuters in an interview. "Some of this is troubling and we've certainly told the Pakistanis that it's troubling."
Earlier in the day, the US Embassy in Islamabad issued a statement labeling the detentions as "extremely disturbing and confusing for the friends of Pakistan," and calling on the government to free the detainees, reports The Washington Post. The rebuke was surprising, said the Post, since it had been kept "quiet for much of the year as Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf suppressed domestic opposition."
"Tasneem Aslam, spokeswoman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, responded that the United States should stay out of the matter. "If the U.S. Embassy is confused, it would be well advised not to make such statements," she said.
The embassy's surprise rebuke came just 12 days before elections in which Musharraf is expected to win a new term.
Pakistan was quick to reject US officials' comments. On Tuesday, Pakistan's Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem said that the arrested activists were threatening key institutions and had been taken into "protective custody," reports the Agence Presse-France.
"The United States normally understands our internal situation better than others because it a very close ally. I am sure it realises that democratic society needs the rule of law and not rule by the mob," Azeem told AFP.
"No government can allow mobs to attack the Supreme Court building and intimidate judges, especially when the top court is hearing important constitutional petitions," he said.
The Post, a Pakistani daily, called the government explanation of the arrests "frivolous .... There has been no serious indication that the APDM (All Parties Democratic Movement) is capable of stirring unmanageable street trouble." A more tenable explanation, said the Post, was that the government feared that if many opposition members of Parliament resigned – as some have already done – the president's reelection would be undermined.
The credibility of the presidential vote already stands compromised as a result of the Election Commission's act of tailoring the rules to accommodate Musharraf's insatiable thirst for power. ...
A presidential election held in a situation where the rules of the game have been changed with batting an eyelid and the opposition parties are being hounded with impunity will not have credibility, no matter how profoundly the US and its cohorts mark their stamp of approval on it. A president elected under a controversial election will not enjoy legitimacy.
Saying that the recent crackdown on activists represented a policy of "zero tolerance," the Daily Times, a Lahore based paper, noted that Musharraf is now facing serious opposition, and the ultimate winners may be the extremists.
The "confluence" of the three streams of opposition to President Musharraf — political, legal-professional, terrorist — is most unfortunate. No one in the political-legal streams is mindful of the fact that the Al Qaeda challenge is a part of the strategy to unseat President Musharraf.
Meanwhile, the legal community announced on Monday that it was pitting a retired judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Mohammed Wajihuddin, against General Pervez Musharraf in the presidential elections. According to observers, The Hindu reports, "even if the lawyers are not successful ... Justice Wajihuddin is so well-regarded that this could turn out be a real contest for the presidency."