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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC

Pak poll may be first free one since 1970: observers

October 03, 2007

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The Bush Administration has said it expects Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf [Images] to honour his commitments to give up his uniform and return the country to democratic rule.

The administration denied any role in the reported power-sharing deal between Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and former exiled prime minister Benazir Bhutto [Images] even though privately, US officials have acknowledged that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's telephone call to Musharraf was intended to egg him on toward such an accord.

Meanwhile, Stephen Cohen, the head of the South Asia programme at the Washington, DC-based think-tank, the Brookings Institution, declared that if all of the recent developments in Pakistan were chess, "I'd say that Musharraf has been checked, but we have not yet seen checkmate."

He acknowledged: "Musharraf could decide that they are not playing chess, and might start a new, much tougher game. I doubt this will happen, as any move toward authoritarianism would bring a reaction from the US, the loss of aid, and turmoil in the streets."

Cohen said assuming that the deal is for real -- and so far there's no word about it from Musharraf himself -- the much more difficult game of running a normal political system begins. "We all wish Pakistan well, but the key players -- civil and military -- will have to display a level of statesmanship that they have not displayed in the past," he said.

He admitted that "this time around everyone is rooting for Pakistan to emerge out of all of this with a stable, more representative, and certainly more effective government. This is in the interests of all of its neighbours, notably India, plus America."

But Cohen argued that "China and Saudi Arabia won't be interested in seeing real democracy take root in Pakistan, but they certainly want an effective government in Islamabad."

Why the Saudis got involved in Pakistan

Walter Andersen, associate director of South Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, felt, "Benazir has been more willing to work with him than has Nawaz Sharif and rather than give him an inbuilt political advantage in the elections, it was necessary for her to return as well."

Andersen said, "All this, of course, tells you two interesting things about the court system: for the first time, it is truly independent and it has assumed a major voice in determining what is politically legitimate. Musharraf opted to compromise rather than confrontation, a wise choice."

But he acknowledged that "this, of course, introduces a major element of uncertainty in Pakistani politics because as never before -- except perhaps for the 1970 elections -- this may be a true elections where people really decide on who will represent them rather than an exercise to legitimise an unrepresentative system."

However, Andersen argued that "at the end of the day, the military still determines the pace of political change in the country and it is likely to be incremental rather than revolutionary."

Teresita Schaffer, who chairs the South Asia programme at another Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said predicting the future is difficult since everything is still in flux.

"In general, I expect that there will be a great deal of messy maneuvering over the next few weeks," she said.

Meanwhile, Cohen complained that the India-Pakistan peace process was in limbo despite "basically, a window having opened up, as Musharraf seems to have persuaded the army that both a dialogue and settlement with India is possible, (but) we have not seen much response from the Indian side."

He said New Delhi has "stonewalled on a number of issues -- Siachen, Sir Creek, visas", but he conceded that "New Delhi is unsure as to who they are dealing with. It's in their interest that there be continuity in Pakistan."

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