Elections Aren’t Everything: Post-Election Uncertainty in Pakistan Is Assured

In less than a week’s time, the people of Pakistan are expected to go to the polls and cast their votes in landmark parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, these elections may be marred by rigging and manipulation, leaving Pakistanis passive observers to their nation’s fate.

The Bush administration appears unprepared for this likely outcome. Speaking earlier this month before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard Boucher continued to express the Bush administration’s hope that there would be “good elections” in Pakistan. The Bush administration’s support for domestic and international election monitoring efforts is a good thing, but the widespread problems in Pakistan’s governing system are not going to be resolved by holding an election. Just about every political player in the Pakistani elections has already declared in words or deeds that “good elections” are not going to happen. The United States must be prepared for deeply flawed results and the risk of ensuing violence.

There are numerous indications that parliamentary elections will not go smoothly, among them:

Pakistan’s democratic institutions are severely weakened. President Pervez Musharraf has deliberately weakened Pakistan’s civil institutions, especially the media and the judiciary, both of which are essential for a transparent and fair election. He still has not reinstated the judiciary, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudury and other senior officers that he sacked in November, instead replacing them with Musharraf loyalists. Furthermore, the media remains muzzled. Those media outlets now back on the air have been forced to sign an oath of loyalty promising not to criticize the government, and many popular news hosts have been barred from broadcasting. Meanwhile “Mullah Radio” FM stations, spewing extremist propaganda, are multiplying unchecked in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Violence has already erupted. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December highlighted the extent of Pakistan’s instability, and violence has continued unabated since. Extremists have threatened candidates from all parties. Fazal Rahman Kakakhel, the Vice President of the Awami National Party, a secular group representing Pakistan’s Pashtun ethnic group, was assassinated in Karachi on February 7th. Two days later a suicide bombing in the North-West Frontier Province killed over twenty-five at an ANP rally. Even conservative Islamic parties who are not believed to be sufficiently radical have been threatened; Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islami party, “has been reduced to campaigning via phone and CD after warnings of a suicide attack.”

The election process is flawed. A National Democratic Institute delegation in October 2007 found numerous irregularities in the voting process, even prior to the declaration of emergency rule and Bhutto’s assassination. The initial voter rolls drafted had 20 million fewer names than those of the 2002 election; more names have since been added, but some 10 million of them cannot be verified as accurate. The interim caretaker government is widely viewed as partisan, and has used the resources of the state to aid Musharraf’s PML-Q party. What’s more, Pakistan has a history of fraudulent elections. In 2002, it is widely believed that President Musharraf rigged the elections, marginalizing the mainstream secular opposition parties and amplifying the influence of the Islamist MMA coalition in order to maintain PML-Q dominance.

Opposition leaders do not trust the election process. Opposition leaders believe that President Musharraf will rig the elections in order to maintain power. Many of the opposition parties, including the Bhutto family-led Pakistan People’s Party and former Primer Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party, allege that violations are already occurring, including the harassment of election workers and the arrest of party activists. The PPP has stated it will take to the streets if the elections are not fair, and Sharif’s party has already called the elections a farce.

There will be little oversight over the elections. Many believe that the Election Commission of Pakistan, the body charged with conducting the elections and monitoring allegations of irregularities, is not independent of President Musharraf’s government. Human Rights Watch recently warned that Pakistan’s election commission was not impartial. Furthermore, the partisan cast of the judiciary raises doubts about its neutrality in adjudicating electoral disputes. Independent election monitors, including 20,000 Pakistanis working with the Free and Fair Election Network and a group of monitors from the United States and the European Union, play an important role in offering neutral oversight of these elections, but they cannot by themselves remedy the problems resulting from an election commission that lacks neutrality and independence.

All of this is well known to Bush administration foreign policymakers. Yet they continue to express hope that the final outcome will be “good elections.” That’s not a strategy. U.S. policymakers instead need to make a dramatic shift in how the United States approaches Pakistan. A new approach would mean the following:

  • Depersonalize our relationship and recognize that President Musharraf’s continued political survival is not a precondition for dealing with militancy. Indeed, his increasingly authoritarian steps to preserve power in the face of widespread opposition have only exacerbated matters and opened up a political vacuum for the extremists to fill. Expand our contacts beyond the elites to the full range of Pakistani society.
  • Prepare to address the demonstrations and violence that will likely ensue following the elections. The United States must be ready to apply pressure on Musharraf to accommodate the demands of the political opposition and to support a power sharing government. Furthermore, the United States must be prepared to bring in regional partners, such as Saudi Arabia and China, to facilitate a dialogue within Pakistan and between Pakistan and its neighbors. While refraining from endorsing particular parties or candidates, the United States should continue to press strongly and publicly for free and fair elections.
  • Invest in Pakistan’s democratic institutions—not its political personalities—over the long-term so that the nation boasts an independent judiciary and a stronger democracy. The U.S. government should increase its pressure on President Musharraf to reinstate the sacked judiciary and to remove all media restrictions—now and in the wake of the elections so that the United States can begin to help these key civil institutions.
  • Increase efforts to support comprehensive counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts that work to expand stability and increase the quality of life for ordinary Pakistanis. Just last week, top U.S. intelligence officials told Congress that Al Qaeda elements are exploiting lawless zones of instability in Pakistan to plot more attacks in the region and possibly in the United States. Increasing our efforts means continued support for Pakistan’s security forces, but this support should not be unconditional and should not come at the expense of efforts to help support other key institutions, including the judicial and legislative branches of government.
  • Boost U.S. foreign aid significantly to improve education to lessen the appeal of the radical madrassas, which are currently the only option available for education in many areas of Pakistan. This targeted investment is central to ending terrorist recruitment campaigns across the country.
  • Strongly encourage and support efforts by the Pakistani government to integrate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan into the national fabric of the country into the rest of the Pakistan. This is where the extremist movement is now rooted, and it can be brought in through development programs and the extension of the electoral system into the region, where political parties are currently banned from organizing.

These long-term and short-term steps to cope with the almost inevitable political uncertainly and chaos following the February 18 election can begin now. We need not wait for the crisis to happen.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Strategic Reset: Reclaiming Control of U.S. Security in the Middle East. Caroline Wadhams is a National Security Senior Policy Analyst at the Center and co-author of The Forgotten Front on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.