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Home > News > Columnists > Jo Johnson

Musharraf is wrong to delay the election

January 03, 2008

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It is a mistake to underestimate the resilience of Pakistan. The Pakistan People's Party has lost its princess and Washington its best hope for a civilian veneer over military rule, but predictions of state collapse, of the country's fragmentation along ethnic faultlines and of a jihadi takeover of the nuclear arsenal have been overblown.

This may be the most serious political crisis in a generation, but life here is returning to what passes for normal. For its prime lunchtime slot on Tuesday, for example, five days after Benazir Bhutto's [Images] murder, the country's main English-language television station, Dwan News, could offer viewers nothing more exciting than a dreary programme devoted to Karachi's public transport system.

�          Pakistan postpones election by six weeks

�          Asian shares start 2008 on a gloomy note

Even the PPP, widely written off last week, is likely to survive the loss of the woman who has led it for the past 30 years. While it has been criticised, mostly in the west, for missing a chance to put a non-family member at its helm, the arrangement whereby Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, takes control until her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, finishes his studies, was the only solution likely to satisfy the rank and file. It would have been preferable if Aitzaz Ahsan, a central figure in the lawyers' movement, had been allowed to modernise the Sindh-based party, transforming it from the feudal property of the family into an ideologically coherent force, but, as a Punjabi and a non-Bhutto, he knew he had no chance.

Given that the teenager will not even be eligible to run for parliament until he is 25, the PPP's succession plan remains far from ideal. Bilawal returned to Dubai on Tuesday, leaving Pakistan's biggest political party in the tainted hands of his father, a roguish bon vivant whose reputation for corruption has been only partly offset by a sense that he has paid his dues during an eight-year spell in jail.

While tolerance of political corruption is perhaps greater in Pakistan than in other countries, from the perspective of President Pervez Musharraf [Images] and others who wish to diminish the PPP as a national force and rival to the ruling pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), the new leadership must be a dream team.

"You may not call it modern, but we have a right to our passions and feelings," says Palwasha Behram Khan, a young PPP leader. "Only the family can provide the cohesion we need at this time. A week ago we thought it was all over for the party, but the people of Pakistan have accepted the succession and understand that although Bilawal is young, Zardari can fill in that gap. He has a clean slate from the people of Pakistan. He can be a binding agent who can save the Pakistani federation and can lift the people out of their gloom. He can prepare them for the next step, which is to take revenge for every drop of blood of Benazir Bhutto's that has been shed, whether that is an election or an agitation."

Musharraf has harmed himself through his clumsy attempts to prevent the PPP from capitalising on Bhutto's "martyrdom". Since March last year, when he triggered the crisis by sacking Iftikhar Cahudhry, the chief justice whose independence had threatened his re-election plans, his capacity for self-inflicted wounds has been limitless.

His government's crass effort to deflect attention from its self-evident failure to provide Bhutto with adequate security -- it insists she died after hitting her head on her vehicle's sunroof and denies she suffered gunshot wounds -- has only fuelled theories it was itself involved. He and his US patrons are to a greater extent than ever the target of popular anger.

Washington's decision to acquiesce in Musharraf's move to delay the January 8 elections will be a further blow to its credibility. The US, after making a show of demanding 'free and fair' elections, has erred in now indicating that a postponement would be 'acceptable', provided that a new date is announced at the same time. The election will now be held on February 18. "The Americans are making more allowances for Musharraf than is wise," observes one senior western diplomat. "To delay would be unduly provocative to the PPP. To be so adamant about the need for an early election and then to shift position to accommodate the PML (Q) reinforces the perception of many Pakistanis that US policy is not driven by principle."

While it is possible to make a case for a delay on the grounds that a dozen election offices have been destroyed in Sindh, logistical difficulties could be overcome with political will. The reality is that the biggest risk to the credibility of the vote comes not from technical disruption caused by four days of rioting, but from Musharraf's likely efforts to rig the result.

In a fair contest, with an independent judiciary, an unbiased election commission and neutral officials in the field, polls suggest Musharraf loyalists would be obliterated. If a delay is simply a pretext to thwart the PPP and to gerrymander a return of a pliable, pro-Musharraf parliament, countries that genuinely want a democratic Pakistan should condemn it.

�          Calm returns following assassination

�          Musharraf accused of avoiding vote

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