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A Free and Fair Vote for Pakistan?


Pakistan's former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is calling on Western nations to stop supporting President Pervez Musharraf, accusing the Pakistani leader of illegally detaining him and his family after he was removed from office last year. The call follows President Musharraf's recent visit to several European countries where he told the international community that democracy will be restored in his country. But some U.S. lawmakers and South Asia experts in Washington are doubtful.

President Pervez Musharraf assured reporters in London last week that Pakistan's parliamentary elections will take place later this month. "I did inform the prime minister [of] our strong desire to go forward with the elections and to ensure that the elections will be free, fair and transparent. And that is what our resolve is and we will have the elections on the 18th February," Mr. Musharraf said.

But some long-time observers of Pakistan's political scene and U.S. lawmakers in Washington caution otherwise. They point to government restrictions on opposition rallies and the imposition of a the strict code of conduct on the Pakistan's media as undercutting a free electoral process.

Mixed Assessments

Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations is pessimistic about Pakistan's prospects for democracy. "There are obvious controls on the media, the code of conduct. There are clear barriers to participation by the political parties and then, of course, the most obvious one is that the judiciary has been severely restrained after November 3," says Markey.

That's when President Musharraf imposed emergency rule and replaced the judiciary with pro-government judges. The resulting political unrest and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto have created a dangerous and uncertain environment for holding elections, according to Markey. "Unfortunately, in this election in Pakistan it appears that the terrorists and the militants get to vote. But their vote is not at the ballot box, their vote is through violence. It is pretty easy to imagine that you could see another spectacular attack that would throw the elections back into question. And I very much hope this is not true, but we have to be realistic here that it is a possibility," says Markey.

But U.S. officials are more optimistic. Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, told members of Congress last week that vote rigging in Pakistan would be difficult to hide. "Even with the restrictions that exist, which we think should be lifted, there is going to be a lot of reporting. There is going to be an enormous number of observers around. The political parties are well organized and, believe me, they will cry foul if there are any fouls that exist," said Boucher.

But South Asia expert Walter Andersen of The Johns Hopkins University says even if the vote is contested, it would be up to the judiciary or other pro-Musharraf officials to resolve. "And then you have an election commission, which is also stacked with supporters of the government. So the chances of having a fair judicial review of cases [i.e., election-related disputes] is certainly questionable," says Andersen.

Pakistan's Judiciary

Lawyers in Pakistan have protested in recent weeks to have independent judges appointed before the elections. But Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told the House National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that Pakistan's judiciary is a sensitive political issue that should be resolved only after the elections. "It needs to be done with the full political process, with the newly-elected prime minister and other leaders. They have to try to get together and figure out how to have a good and independent judiciary in Pakistan," said Boucher.

However, U.S. Representative Peter Welch told the Subcommittee that even if the new parliament restores the judiciary, President Musharraf could still alter the course of Pakistan's democracy. "There is an inherent conflict that I think we might want to directly acknowledge. And that's on the one hand, we believe in free and fair elections. But on the other hand, the person who 'is going to implement this' has already sabotaged any possibility that the people who are going to vote can be confident that it is a free and fair election or if it is, he [i.e., Pervez Musharraf] won't be able to overturn the action of their vote by dissolving the parliament they elected," said Welch.

Some U.S. lawmakers have also raised doubts about the effectiveness of the foreign observers Pakistan has allowed into the country to monitor the elections. They note that the observers will not be allowed to conduct exit polls and that their visas require them to leave the country three days after the voting ends.

During the Subcommittee hearing, Representative Todd Platts expressed dismay that Pakistan will not allow U.S. observers greater access. "If there is anything that I personally am disappointed in in my trips to Pakistan, it's that for the amount of support that we give this president [i.e., Mr. Musharraf] and the fact that his election itself was clearly flawed at best, we are not pushing for this check and balance of at least having a prime minister whose election is considered to be at a higher standard, which would seem to be the minimum that we can ask for from this president."

Congressman Platts said that if foreign observers are forced to leave three days after the elections, even if they are in the process of uncovering discrepancies, it is clear that they will not be able to determine whether the vote was free and fair.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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