Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has won overwhelming endorsement for five more years in office. The government claims that the vote gives the regime, which seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, a democratic stamp of approval. It does not: The election offers a veneer of legitimacy to a usurper. With unstinting effort and a genuine commitment to reform, Mr. Musharraf can redeem his rule.
Mr. Musharraf, as head of the army, overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after charging him with corruption. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the coup was legal, and gave the general, by then the president, three years to implement his program for reform. That grace period expires in October. Unable to complete his program — and unwilling to give up power — Mr. Musharraf decided to call a referendum that would give him five more years in office, and the fig leaf of democratic approval.
This week’s ballot purports to do just that. After continually lowering the bar for what would constitute an endorsement of the president, the government announced that nearly three-quarters of eligible voters had turned out, and 98 percent of them approved Mr. Musharraf’s second term in office. Both of those numbers are contested: Independent observers say turnout was low (opposition parties say it was abysmal), and there have been repeated allegations of ballot stuffing.
Nonetheless, Mr. Musharraf will remain in office and the rest of the world will continue to do business with him. The truth is Pakistan is a borderline failed state and civilian rule took the country to the brink of ruin. While the established political parties protested the 1999 coup, much of the public did not; significant portions of the population even welcomed the move. Three years later, many in Pakistan still believe that Mr. Musharraf is the best hope for stability and modernization.
Perhaps even more important, Mr. Musharraf has proven to be a strong ally in the fight against terrorism. Pakistan had been instrumental in supporting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a policy that Mr. Musharraf abandoned when the United States called on the world to take sides in the wake of the terrible tragedies of Sept. 11. That won him tangible support from Washington, in the form of aid and debt relief worth more than $2.3 billion, and halted a swing in U.S. foreign policy that appeared to be isolating Islamabad. The U.S. is still counting on Islamabad’s support and active participation as it attempts to root out the remnants of al-Qaeda that have fled to Pakistan or the border regions in Afghanistan.
Support is not unqualified, however. Many countries have said that they are waiting to see the results of national assembly elections in October. Moreover, there are reports that Mr. Musharraf is likely to use the referendum results to push through two constitutional changes that will consolidate his hold on power. One will restore the president’s power to fire the prime minister and dissolve the national assembly. The other would establish a national security council, chaired by Mr. Musharraf, that would oversee the government elected in October. Both moves would give Mr. Musharraf unchallenged power and institutionalize the military’s role in the country’s politics. Both are direct blows to Pakistan’s democratic prospects.
International support will also diminish if Pakistan’s commitment to the antiterrorism campaign waivers. Critics say that the government’s actions have not matched Mr. Musharraf’s rhetoric. After arresting more than 2,000 Islamic militants in a crackdown that promised to eliminate Islamic terrorism in Pakistan, nearly three-quarters reportedly have already been released, including high-profile figures linked to terrorist organizations.
Ultimately, Mr. Musharraf must deliver on his promise of reform and renovation. Lifting the deadweight of corruption will permit the country to develop. Providing some economic future for the millions of Pakistan’s youth would help diminish the allure of radical Islam. That would reinforce stability in the country; the current unrest and uncertainty scares away investment and further hinders economic development.
Balancing the need for stability and security with the demand for democracy is a delicate assignment. The painful reality is that, this week’s ballot notwithstanding, Mr. Musharraf is not the head of a democratic government and there is little indication that he will allow one to develop in the next five years. The West will do business with the general as long as he delivers on his promises to stabilize a nuclear-armed Pakistan and continues to fight radical Islamists. A failure on either count would have repercussions not only in South Asia, but throughout the world.
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