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WORLD: Pakistan's General Musharraf prepares for an ugly election

November 17, 2007
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Since General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency and dismissed the Supreme Court of Pakistan on November 3, appointing a mock bench in its place, over 3000 lawyers have been held in remand and many of the best known lawyers in the country are in hiding. Outspoken political leaders are under detention, while others, including Benazir Bhutto, get locked up or otherwise restrained any time that they attempt to take to the streets. There are no possibilities at all for political parties to mobilize their supporters or engage in any form of electioneering or demonstrate a political consensus against military dictatorship.

The media also has been severely restricted and many broadcasters have been completely closed down. Two ordinances have imposed onerous requirements on electronic and print media. Even Dubai-based stations have been forcibly shut down: Geo News and ARY were cut off from midnight on November 16, apparently due to pressure from the government of Pakistan. For all practical purposes, everyone except those supporting the general's agenda for staging an ugly election has been silenced.

General Musharraf has made no secret about his strategy for this election. In TV interviews in which he has become his own press spokesman he has made his mind perfectly clear. What is more important, he asks, democracy or saving the nation? And he provides the answer to his own question: of course, it is the saving of the nation! So no one needs to have any doubt as to whether or not democracy has anything to do with this election. Democracy, according to the military chief, is an obstacle to the saving of the nation, whatever that is supposed to be about.

What then is the purpose of this election? Clearly, it is to stop democracy; to make the general even stronger--although this may mean that he has to surrender his military uniform. Musharraf deeply resents the massive popular protests earlier this year that brought him down to size, not to mention the growing international pressure on his position. He can only grow bigger again by injecting a lethal dose of venom in anyone aspiring for democracy and change.

If democracy is out and saving the nation is in, then Musharraf presents himself as the man alone to achieve this goal. Like Louis XVI he has declared that he himself embodies the state. His persistent, fraudulent message is that if he perishes politically then everyone else is doomed too. Perhaps he firmly believes in his indispensable role; anyone who is removed from reality may end up a megalomaniac. But when that person happens to be the head of state then the country truly is in trouble.

So Musharraf is a danger both to democracy and also to the people of Pakistan. The ousted chief justice, Iftekhar Chouhdry, correctly characterized the general as a threat to his country. Musharraf has already destroyed much. Unless he is stopped now the people of Pakistan and also the global community will soon see great catastrophes in this unfortunate nation. The consequences will be felt regionally, and globally.

Why does the Bush administration appear to think that General Musharraf is indispensable to the fight against terrorism?

In public statements, President George Bush and other members of the United States administration have commonly expressed a view that General Musharraf is indispensable to the fight against terrorism. Perhaps he is viewed in terms of an established American foreign policy of dealing with one dictator or another that "he may be a son of a bitch but he's our son of a bitch".

What is worse is that the Bush administration seems to agree with the Musharraf view that democracy needs to be sacrificed to save the nation. While pretending to support the ideal, the Bush administration clearly does not want a change of power in Pakistan. It appears that it also believes that saving its interests depends upon saving the general. Perhaps the large sums of American dollars paid to his government, reported to be over ten billion dollars, may make Bush think that of Musharraf as a debtor who will oblige his creditors. Perhaps to begin anew may be considered too complicated. So, American thinking turns to convenience, and better the devil you know than the one you don't, whoever that may be, and whatever the consequences for democracy or anything else in the region.

But is the Pakistan military nothing more than a gang of soldiers following a single leader? Will the armed forces disintegrate if Musharraf is ousted? Even to ask such questions is to underestimate the country's military establishment. To postulate military disintegration if a democratic government takes power in Pakistan is to propagate a myth. Throughout the world, it has been shown that strong armed forces can coexist and in fact perform better in the interests of a nation when functioning under a democratic regime. To portray democracy as the enemy of the armed forces is a scam.

So too is scaremongering that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal may fall into the hands of terrorists if Musharraf is no longer in power. Already some outstanding international observers and diplomats have exposed the falsehood of this position. The nuclear arsenal of Pakistan is maintained under strictly professional systems of administration within the armed forces of the country. Whoever may be the head of the state this set up cannot be dismantled secretly or easily. Again, there is more reason to believe that a democratic government--operating under checks and balances--will behave more responsibly in handling these weapons than a military regime.

What the Bush administration seems to be worried about above all else is the resurgence of democratic forces in Pakistan. The defiance of ousted Chief Justice Choudhry to Musharraf and massive movement of lawyers and millions of the country's people who joined them to defend judicial independence between March and July of this year is what it really fears. This may explain why the Bush administration has not condemned the appointment of a mock Supreme Court or called on Musharraf to reinstate the ousted chief justice. Neither has it made a clear call for the immediate release of all the lawyers who are being kept in custody.

Any call for the lifting of emergency rule and democratic elections is a hollow call when accompanied by silence over the destruction of the judiciary. If there is to be a semblance of credibility in the Bush administration's talk about democracy it must first of all speak out unequivocally to secure without delay the reinstatement of the ousted chief justice and the previous Supreme Court bench, as well as ensure the release of all lawyers and democratic activists and see that there is complete freedom for political parties to engage in genuine electioneering to enable the people of Pakistan to make open and informed choices about their government.

Above all, anti-terrorism strategies that distrust people and their ability to decide things for themselves can only imperil everyone. In this regard, the Asian Human Rights Commission wishes to remind the United States government of the tremendous chaos it caused in Cambodia by establishing the military regime of Marshall Lon Nol in 1971, paving the way for the Khmer Rouge and within a few years the death of one seventh of the population there. Presumably it does not wish to repeat such mistakes and needlessly create such shockwaves or further historical tragedies with lasting repercussions. It should thus reconsider its position on Musharraf, the military, the courts, the lawyers and the people of Pakistan.

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