Why the world needs democracy in Pakistan

Dictatorship fuels extremism, which reaches far beyond Pakistan.

The world has rightly welcomed President Pervez Musharraf's retirement as Army head and announcement that emergency rule will end on Dec. 16. However, a crucial question remains. Is Pakistan heading toward a democratic future? Parliamentary elections are currently scheduled for Jan. 8. Among many worrying signs of corruption, the election commission is biased and not acting on complaints of fraud.

Yet if credible elections are not held, it will have dangerous consequences for Pakistan and the rest of the world community: Extremism will continue to grow, putting everyone at risk. The world must act to prevent this. It must insist on free and fair elections in Pakistan.

President Musharraf's last term in office demonstrated that dictatorship has fueled extremism. The tribal areas of Pakistan have turned into havens for militants to mount attacks on NATO troops in nearby Afghanistan. Lack of governance has led to the expansion of extremism into settled areas of Pakistan.

Democracy offers the best hope of containing extremism. Yet democracy depends on a fair electoral process and an independent election commission willing and able to implement Pakistan's electoral laws to prevent vote fraud. That is not happening.

"Improvised" voting stations, a pseudonym for ghost polling stations, dot practically every parliamentary constituency. Electoral lists – prepared with financial assistance from USAID – are fatally flawed, with more than 10 million unverified and missing names (clearly enough to "win" or "lose" an election). The sanctity of any future ballot is doubtful against reports that district returning officers have been ordered to disperse 20,000 ballots already marked in favor of pro-government candidates. These bogus votes will be "cast" through the process of double voting in the "improvised" voting stations – in ballot boxes that are translucent rather than transparent.

Mayors continue to control guns and police and government resources and are using them shamelessly to campaign for government candidates. The election commission has asked for "a report" on such malpractices but has taken no concrete efforts to stop them. Politically motivated officials have been placed in charge of the civilian intelligence services and key state posts to manipulate the elections further, although election laws demand that such officials be neutral. An assistant to a former chief minister has been made a returning officer to preside over elections in his area. This complaint is being "looked into" as well, which is simply a fancy way of buying time and doing nothing.

Punjab Province, which elects more than half of Pakistan's parliament, chooses 148 of the members through direct elections, excluding reserved seats for women and minorities. Of these seats, it is believed that 108 have been marked for rigging for government-backed candidates.

By the time all such reports of fraud come in from across the country, the elections will be over.

On top of all this, the media remains gagged, opposition leaders remain imprisoned, voter lists and voting locations have not yet been provided to opposition parties or to the general public in final print or electronic format, and no effort has been made by the pliant electoral commission to regularly consult with political parties on these issues. There is also no plan in place to ensure that votes counted at voting stations will be delivered to local consolidation centers without being manipulated en route. The National Reconciliation Ordinance, which provides for an immediate consolidated count, has been suspended.

Put quite simply, the elections are being stitched up to give the country a continuation of the outgoing government – one that failed to prevent the spread of militancy, extremism, and terrorism. Major terrorist attacks, including the latest plot discovered in Germany this summer, tracked terrorists' footsteps back to Pakistan's northern areas.

Unless there is a change in the status quo, the past will repeat itself. But that change can only come when the world community puts its weight behind fair elections and its faith in the people of Pakistan.

Musharraf sent a delegation to the US last week to talk to the Bush administration and members of Congress about the current situation. This visit was only meantto feign progress and deflect criticism.

Musharraf wants the world to believe that the coming election, though not perfect, will be "good enough for Pakistan" given the country's difficult circumstances. But the current circumstances are of the regime's making. Those in charge can – and must – do much better on this count.

The international community must send a clear message that it will not be an accessory to this coming crime. It must not wait to see if the elections on Jan. 8 are free and fair. It must insist on a minimum set of benchmarks to be met for the election to be recognized as free and fair. If the benchmarks are ignored, the international community must be prepared to signal its displeasure to the Musharraf regime in specific, tangible ways.

Flawed elections will worsen instability in Pakistan as civil society and political parties protest. Imposing international restrictions after the fact will be fruitless and only deepen anti-American sentiment.

At the very least, America can and should prod Musharraf to give Pakistanis an independent election commission, a neutral caretaker administration, and an end to blatant vote manipulation.

America is the world's most powerful democracy. By standing up for democracy at this critical time, Washington can give this nuclear-armed nation an opportunity to reverse the tide of extremism that today threatens not only Pakistan but the larger world community as well.

Benazir Bhutto is the former prime minister of Pakistan.

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