It now seems probable that Pakistan will hold parliamentary elections Jan. 8. It seems just as likely the result may be little more than a reshuffling of familiar faces that will not result in the institutional changes needed to put this Islamic republic on the doorstep of democracy.
The leaders of both major opposition parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, talk about nudging this nation of 165 million toward genuine democratic government. Yet both are already forecasting that Pakistan's intelligence services and the Army will rig the elections against them and for President Pervez Musharraf's candidates.
It is premature to suggest that the balloting will be farcical. But it is not unfair to be skeptical about the outcome. Ms. Bhutto's and Mr. Sharif's anxiety about rigged elections is an amusing suggestion in this country. They've held the premiership twice before, and their records are spotted with accusations of corruption and feudalism that have strangled democracy here just as much as military dictatorship.
Will the election of a civilian prime minister restore full press freedoms? How would a Bhutto victory advance the cause of democracy when her party wants to remove the constitutional ban on serving more than two terms, giving her the opportunity for open-ended tenure? And what happens if a new government is seen as ineffective against growing anarchy and creeping Talibanization? Will the Army again intercede, as then-Army Chief of Staff Musharraf did when he staged a dramatic coup in 1999?
Politics is ever the art of the possible and it is useful to examine Pakistan's controlling institutions: the Army and the intelligence services; the feudal families in the land-holding classes, as well as business tycoons; and the increasingly politicized Islamic clergy.
The Pakistani Army sucks up a huge percentage of Pakistan's budget. It is a fraternity that generously rewards its own with perks unheard-of in the West. Like most armies, it is resistant to change or reform.
Among other things, it was the judiciary's attempt to hold Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) accountable for hundreds of secret arrests that cost former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry and other judges their jobs. The ISI is another sacred cow that shows no evidence of welcoming reforms.
Pakistan's land-holding feudal families have long been a law unto themselves, avoiding taxes on agricultural income, blocking land reform, and checking economic progress.
Another major obstacle to democratic reform is Pakistan's Islamic clergy. President Bush has said it is wrong to suggest that a Muslim country isn't "ready" for democracy. But it is a bigger insult to freedom to cheapen the meaning of democracy, and Pakistan's clergy have increased their political power by coercion, not by becoming practitioners of democracy in mosques.
Any society that wants to move toward democracy in any meaningful sense must meet minimum requirements, including:
•An educated citizenry.
•A credible legal culture.
•Reasonable transparency in government.
•Real religious tolerance.
Citizens in a democracy must be able to read and write. The CIA World Factbook reports the literacy rate in Pakistan at 50 percent. But Pakistanis will tell you that many of those counted as literate may only be able to sign their name. The actual rate may be 10 or 20 percent. It would be enormously useful if a new government diverted some of the military budget to better fund secular education.
A government of law in which people have reasonable confidence in the administration of justice is the glue that holds a democratic society together. When asked if police pressured anyone in their household for bribes, 57 percent of Pakistanis said "yes." Not the stuff of which there is even a perception of justice or public confidence.
Every democracy wrestles with transparency in government. But everyone I've met in Pakistan knows someone who has disappeared into the night, arrested by state intelligence services and held in secret prisons under the vague pretense of having "terrorist connections." Democracies require a citizenry that does not live in fear of its government.
Lastly, genuine democracies practice religious tolerance. That requires more than Christmas trees in the lobbies of Islamabad's tourist hotels. It means an end to Sunni discrimination against other Muslim sects. An easy first step would be the removal of discriminatory religious identification stamps in Pakistani national passports.
That's why the hope that "free and fair elections" in coming days will produce greater democracy is dubious and naïve.
Ironically, this country's best hope may now lie in the increasing desperateness of the situation. With a quarter of the country – the North-West Frontier Province – now involved in a violent war with the Taliban, and another quarter – Baluchistan – flirting with secession, a new prime minister is going to have to move quickly and boldly in concert with the Army to save Pakistan from a downward spiral toward Balkanization and disintegration. The alternative is not pretty.
• Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN.